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Power plant bill won’t save coal-fired electricity

Salt Lake Tribune logo Salt Lake Tribune 3/1/2023 Brian Maffly
Steve Griffin | The Salt Lake Tribune  The coal-fired Intermountain Power Project near Delta, Utah Friday April 12, 2013. Utah lawmakers hope to forestall its decommissioning scheduled for July 2025 when its cleaner replacement plant comes online. © Steve Griffin Steve Griffin | The Salt Lake Tribune The coal-fired Intermountain Power Project near Delta, Utah Friday April 12, 2013. Utah lawmakers hope to forestall its decommissioning scheduled for July 2025 when its cleaner replacement plant comes online.

Sen. Derrin Owens’s efforts to thwart the early retirement of Utah’s largest power plant is falling short in the Legislature, but the bill he is co-sponsoring still elevates, however slightly, lawmakers’ ability to meddle in how generating stations are operated.

Awaiting a vote in the full Senate, HB425 declares it is the state’s duty to ensure electric utilities can put “dispatchable” and “reliable” power on the grid and would require utilities to notify the Legislature six months in advance of any plans to retire coal-fired power plants. But under its current wording, it won’t do much to save the Intermountain Power Project (IPP) from demolition in the coming years.

Meanwhile, the bill is silent on the state’s role in safeguarding the environment, which coal impacts in various ways that other energy sources don’t.

Owens, R-Fountain Green, and others contend Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulations have increasingly constrained coal-fired power generation, putting the nation’s electrical grid at risk. Everywhere plants are shutting down because meeting new regulatory requirements is making them uneconomical to operate, according to the bill’s lead sponsor Rep. Ken Ivory, R-West Jordan.

“Twenty-five percent of Americans right now are struggling to pay for food and medicine because their energy costs are going through the roof,” Ivory told the Senate Natural Resources, Agriculture and Environment Committee last week. “Planning for energy is something that happens on a 50-year time horizon, not on 12 months when the EPA issues a mandate.”

He framed the matter as a constitutional question wherein states should retain the power to determine their own energy policy.

“The bill is agnostic as to the type of energy,” he said. “This is about the state’s jurisdiction to make sure we can make those long-term plans for the health, safety and welfare of Utahns.”

Sen. Nate Blouin, D-Salt Lake City, disputed Ivory’s characterization of the bill, arguing it is hardly agnostic toward fuel sources, but rather clearly pro-coal.

“It’s not really a constitutional issue,” he said. “It’s specifically related to an agreement with the EPA.”

The agreement in the bill’s crosshairs is between the federal watchdog and the Intermountain Power Agency (IPA), whose 1,900-megawatt IPP outside Delta is out of compliance with regulations designed to limit power plants’ threats to the environment and public health.

To avoid having to make costly upgrades, IPA has agreed to close the plant in July 2025, when it brings its greener replacement, known as IPP Renewed. Under construction next to the coal plant is an 840-megawatt unit that will generate power using a mix of natural gas and hydrogen stored nearby in underground caverns.

IPA meanwhile has rejected an offer from a Utah startup that wants to buy the coal plant to use it to power proposed data centers in Millard County after making a $5 billion investment in state-of-the-art emissions controls.

Many in the Legislature are upset with IPA, a political subdivision of the state of Utah, for abandoning coal. That one plant burns nearly a third of the coal produced by Utah mines and its closure would have a far-reaching impact on some rural communities that depend on mining.

Owens went so far to call IPA’s move “treasonous” in remarks on a talk show Friday and accused the EPA of “manufacturing a crisis.”

“We’re watching 3,000 jobs disappear. Build Back Better is built back with nothing,” he told conservative host Glenn Beck, referencing President Joe Biden’s signature public investment initiative. Owens praised the existing coal plant as a reliable workhorse, saying it would be a disaster if the new plant doesn’t perform as expected, but the old plant is torn down. He claimed HB425 would forestall such an outcome.

“We’re doubling in population in Utah, and we’re going to cut our capacity to produce power? … There’s an agreement that the plant is going to be standing and operable,” Owens told Beck. “We have the votes for it.”

That’s not exactly what IPA agreed to, according to spokesman John Ward.

“We can’t tear anything down or shut it down prematurely without giving 180 days’ notice. We’re fine with that,” Ward said. “And then there’s a third paragraph that makes it crystal clear that the Legislature’s not trying to interfere with forward on the construction of the new project.”

Owens had floated another amendment to the bill last week that could have monkey wrenched the replacement plant and would have required the Legislature to intervene before the plant could be decommissioned. But that version was never adopted.

Under the version now before the Senate, IPA would still be able to eventually demolish the old plant as it has promised the EPA.

“It says that you are not going to sell off any of these assets of the plant. You’re going to leave them whole and you’re going to give notice to the state,” Owens said on Beck’s show. “They have to leave the plant standing and, when they walk away, because it belongs to the state of Utah. It doesn’t have to be eminent domain.”

That may be what Owens wanted in HB425, but these requirements are not featured in the amended version passed out of committee Friday. The bill does require IPA to give the Legislature 180 days advance notice of any action to retire the plant and it may not do anything to “prevent the functionality” of the plant before July 1, 2025. After the 180-day notice, however, there is nothing in the bill to stop the wrecking balls from swinging. And there is certainly nothing in the bill requiring the coal units to become the property of the state.

Generally speaking, it requires electrical utilities to notify the Attorney General’s Office within 30 days anytime the EPA imposes a rule that could result in the “forced retirement of a power plant.

The attorney general “may take any action necessary to defend the interest of the state with respect to electricity generation by the qualified utility, including filing an action in court or participating in administrative proceedings,” the bill reads.

Attorney General Sean Reyes hardly needs HB425 to pursue such actions and he already has one in the works with the help of expensive outside lawyers, challenging EPA’s application of the ozone transport rule. A fiscal note indicates that the bill would require the AG to hire a full-time staff attorney at a cost of $222,400 a year.

Blouin, who voted against the measure, said the bill’s current version amounts to little more than a “message bill,” still one that sets a bad precedent, especially for Utah’s largest utility, Rocky Mountain Power, which is under pressure to retrofit its two aging coal-fired plants in Utah with expensive emission controls.

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