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Legislators Look For Answers With Impending Coal Plant Closures

Preferred Portfolio Coal Retirements based on its chosen IRP
Rocky Mountain Power

Wyoming's Joint Minerals, Business and Economic Development Committee used its last hearing before the budget session to discuss concerns over Rocky Mountain Power's recently announced Integrated Resource Plan (IRP). The public utility's long-awaited plan detailed its shift away from coal, including the early retirement of two Wyoming coal plants.

"I think this is the most significant IRP Wyoming has ever dealt with. It's one more sign we're dealing with something unprecedented. How we manage that is going to be paramount in how we go forward," said Renny MacKay, Gov. Mark Gordon's policy director.

Rocky Mountain Power not only operates four coal plants in Wyoming, but also consumes four percent of the state's coal and employs 688 people at its plants. MacKay, on behalf of the Governor's office, said this IRP may hit the state directly, but utility plans elsewhere may be hurting coal production.

"I think that looking at IRPs closely across the nation is important to make sure we preserve those markets whenever possible, whenever it's in the best interest to maintain the use of that coal... if it's in Indiana or if it's in Kemmerer," he said.

Legislators questioned Wyoming's Public Service Commission (PSC) on possible challenges moving forward. They asked questions, such as who would pay for decommissioning if a utility abandoned its plant or whether it had any say in the IRP moving forward.

Ranchester Sen. Bo Biteman asked the commission if they could simply reject Rocky Mountain Power's IRP. PSC Chief Counsel Chris Petrie said it can conduct public comment, review, and scrutinize a utilities plan, but it can't approve or disapprove.

"What's the point of having a regulated utility, if the regulators are going to allow the utility that's protected from competition to close reliable, cheap, affordable energy power plants, raise the rates on our taxpayers and put our taxpayers out of work?" Biteman said.

Petrie recounted the commission's mission statement: "it is the PSC's responsibility to ensure the public utilities operating in Wyoming provide safe and reliable service to customers at just and reasonable rates." He added there's just no infrastructure in place to approve or reject an IRP.

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Petrie said there is a meeting coming up to discuss whether the PSC should investigate the study that led to the IRP. A study released in December of last year from Pacificorp, the parent company of Rocky Mountain Power, found it would be cheaper to switch to renewables and gas than keep running over half its coal plants.

The committee tabled two bills, one that would revise the Public Service Commission to include legislators. It sent another to the Corporations, Elections, and Political Subdivisions Committee called the Early Retirement of Coal Fired Generation Facilities.

That draft bill could expand the Public Service Commission's authority in situations of early retirements. According to the Legislative Service Office, the bill would add more factors the PSC could consider in response to an early plant retirement, like the impacts to employees or communities. It would also look at workforce transition plans and creative forms of financing to stave off rate hikes.

Renny MacKay said it wouldn't be unwarranted to grant more power to the Public Service Commission saying other states have let politics guide their energy choices.

"The authority to not be able to reject an IRP or to force the acceptance of one because other states have granted that have started to change their laws has created an imbalance," he said.

Sen. Biteman agreed the state should have more leverage in this situation.

"Wyoming, by not doing it, has really taken it on the chin. By standing on the sidelines and allowing everything to happen to us, that's happened to us, we're in the situation we're in now," he said.

Shannon Anderson, staff attorney for the Powder River Basin Resource Council, said the language in the bill was vague and could create more problems for ratepayers and the commission. She added its brand new territory if the PSC starts to consider socioeconomic factors in determining rates.

The committee also tabled a bill that could have led to nuclear waste storage in Wyoming.

Have a question about this story? Contact the reporter, Cooper McKim, at cmckim5@uwyo.edu.

Before Wyoming, Cooper McKim has reported for NPR stations in Connecticut, Massachusetts, and South Carolina. He's reported breaking news segments and features for several national NPR news programs. Cooper is the host of the limited podcast series Carbon Valley. Cooper studied Environmental Policy and Music. He's an avid jazz piano player, backpacker, and podcast listener.
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