Affordable Clean Energy Renews Hope In Coal Country, But Should It?

Aug 24, 2018

It's a bright, cloudless day in Gillette, Wyoming as a long train passes by overflowing with coal. Huge, open-pit mines dot the perimeter of a light-blue coal-fired power plant. Inside, a turbine is making the building rumble with its constant hum of producing electricity. It's supplying power to the entire western grid.

Plant Manager Tom Stalcup standing inside Dry Fork Station.
Credit Cooper McKim

Tom Stalcup, the plant manager, said wind can stop blowing, but coal is reliable.

"Coal-fired power plants are a necessity to keep t the system stable, the electricity grid stable in America," he said.

Stalcup believes the Obama-era Clean Power Plan could have put that at risk. It aimed to cut carbon emissions by shifting away from coal to renewables. That would have been a big blow to Wyoming where the coal industry produces nearly a quarter of the state's income.

"We're hoping this new plan under the Trump administration will relax that a little bit," Stalcup said.

Dry Fork Station Power Plant
Credit Cooper McKim

The new proposal called the Affordable Clean Energy rule would give states more power to regulate carbon emissions. In Wyoming, it's providing new hope that some plants might stay open longer. It doesn't set any cap for reducing emissions, it simply suggests how individual plants could become more efficient.

"It'll keep some of the plants on, I don't know as if it will keep all of them on. Yeah, I think it'll have an impact on which plants close and which stay running," Stalcup said.

Rob Godby, director for the University of Wyoming Center for Energy Economics and Public Policy, is not so sure. He said the real problem for coal is economic. It's just too expensive compared to other forms of energy.

"Coal-fired power plants have to compete directly with natural gas plants and renewables where they're already losing." He said, "this plan really isn't going to affect that."

Sign posted at the road where you also pass several large, open-pit coal mines.
Credit Cooper McKim

Godby said it is possible some plants could stay open longer. The proposal would allow coal plants to make minor emissions control changes without having to do a full, bank-breaking, environmental upgrade.

"It maybe creates a little bit more of an incentive to invest in some coal-fired power plants to keep them open a little longer than they might have been otherwise, but that is a very small number," he said.

According to S & P Global Market Intelligence, utilities plan to close about three dozen coal units by 2020 - and many say they don't expect that to change despite the new proposal.

Cloud Peak Energy, the country's third-largest coal producer, welcomes the rollback. But Rick Curtsinger, the director of public affairs, said more could still be done to protect coal. He said the company would even like to see Congress step in, "and develop comprehensive and cohesive legislation that gives long-term certainty to utilities to make the 20 and 30-year investments necessary for lasting affordable and reliable electricity."

Gillette Mayor Louise Carter-King standing just outside Dry Fork Station Power Plant.
Credit Cooper McKim

Back at the Dry Fork Station, Gillette Mayor Louise Carter-King said the administration's Affordable Clean Energy rule is really just a short-term boost. Plus, everything could change again after the next presidential election.

"You know there's always that thought, you just don't know what the next administration will do. So, it's that uncertainty that is tough on people and the industry," she said.

Utilities are mindful of that too. That's another reason why the Trump Administration's latest effort to help coal may not change much.