Political, environmental and market forces are steering many Western states towards adopting more renewable energy — like wind and solar — while phasing out traditional but dirtier sources like coal.
At a Public Utility Commission hearing last week, utility operators and regulators in Utah argued that the shift is putting the entire western grid at risk of blackouts, as renewables can only produce electricity at certain times.
“One of my biggest concerns is that conventional wisdom is marching toward a system that is a whole lot of solar and a whole lot of wind in the hope that battery storage will continue to get cheaper and better,” said Chris Parker, director of the Utah Department of Commerce public utilities division.
“That very well may happen,” Parker said. “But I also think we need to be careful not to jump too far ahead and start closing things before we’re really ready to make that transition.”
Because the western electrical grid has become increasingly interconnected — with power sources generated and transferred across several states — Parker said mandates to eliminate coal-fired power plants in states like Oregon and Washington are putting more pressure on other states to maintain more consistent energy sources, such as coal.
There are currently five coal-fired power plants operating in Utah, which together account for most of the state’s energy production — 61% in 2020. Four plants have scheduled retirement dates. Rocky Mountain Power, the state’s largest power utility, also plans to close 20 of the 24 coal units serving Utah customers by 2038.
While Parker did not make specific recommendations about how long to keep those plants in operation, he and others stressed their importance as reliable power sources in the West, particularly during the times of day when demand for energy is highest, between 4 p.m. to 10 p.m.
“When we talk about market forces shutting down coal, it’s absolutely not market forces,” said Colin Jack, chief operating officer of Dixie Power. “It’s absolutely regulatory, legislation and public service commissions who are failing to mandate that utilities get the least cost, most reliable resource rather than getting the most politically correct, coolest and the sexiest resource.”
The argument to preserve coal power is a controversial one, said Robert Godby, an energy policy economist at the University of Wyoming.
He said there are legitimate concerns about the reliability of renewable energy sources. But maintaining coal-fired power plants is also expensive to ratepayers — even if only used on a reserve basis — and comes with additional environmental costs. The risk of outages is still relatively small, too, he said.
Plus, because of the politics around climate change, Godby said it’s also hard to know if the argument to maintain coal is being made in good faith.
“The question is, are they concerned about reliability or is this just a self-interested concern of maybe a special interest, like a coal mining region that doesn’t want to lose its coal mining jobs,” he said.
Ultimately, Godby said utilities and regulators are facing a conundrum in how to best plan for the future. Energy technology is changing so rapidly that it’s difficult to predict what the best investments will be, whether that’s going all in on renewables or hedging bets with traditional sources.
“No matter what happens and what decision is made, there will be editorials written that basically argue that the wrong decision was made,” he said.