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Coal production rose in Wyoming during 2021, but that’s just part of a bigger story of decline

Coal production rose in Wyoming during 2021, part of a surge for coal as the nation and world’s economies grew rapidly.

Long term, though, coal continues to lose market share in the United States—and Colorado’s Comanche Generating Station is part of that story.

The Casper Star-Tribune notes that the spot market for Powder River Basin skyrocketed in mid-November to a $30 per short ton, more than double the previous 10-year high of $13.25.

The newspaper explained that natural gas production lagged demand, causing utilities to turn more to coal.

It was part of an international trend. “This year’s historically high level of coal power generation is a worrying sign of how far off track the world is in its efforts to put emissions into decline toward net zero,” said Fatih Birol, executive director of the International Energy Administration.

But the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis warns that the narrative of coal’s resurgence in 2021 disguises the larger story.

Looking not just at Wyoming but the United States altogether, the organization found that the recovery had actually evaporated in November and December. The long-term trend is clear: Coal‘s share of electrical generation has fallen by half since 2010—and more is to come. It stood at 22.5% in 2021.

IEEFA cites the example of Comanche, where two units that burn Powder River coal will close in 2023 and 2025. Still unclear is the precise closing of the third and newest unit, Comanche 3, but an agreement reached by Xcel Energy with other stakeholders in November would reduce the unit’s output to no more than 33% by 2029 and close the unit entirely by the end of 2034.


Assuming nuclear plant goes forward, town in Wyoming gearing up

Kemmerer, a town in southwest Wyoming, has long been famous as the site of the first JCPenney clothing store. It now hopes to make history as the site of a next-gen nuclear power plant.

TerraPower, the start-up co-founded by Bill Gates to revolutionize designs for nuclear reactors, announced in December that it had chosen Kemmerer from among four Wyoming towns and cities with coal-fired power plants to go forward with its plans for a demonstration project, called Natrium.

The plant is being developed in partnership with Rocky Mountain Power, a subsidiary of PacifiCorp.

The Casper Star-Tribune explains that the U.S. Department of Energy has promised to pay up to $1.6 billion, as long as the plant is operational by 2028. The full plan cost is projected to be $4 billion.

TerraPower needs two major permits: a construction license by August 2023 and an operating license in March 2026.

This is a tight timeline – which was the intent of Congress, with the goal that it will reduce costs. Also working to reduce costs will be a relatively small plant size, 345 megawatts, with the potential to expand to a capacity of 500 megawatts. TerraPower hopes to eventually reduce costs to $1 billion.

CNBC in November explained that the Kemmerer plant will be the first to use the Natrium design crafted by TerraPower with GE-Hitachi. It is to use liquid sodium as a cooling agent instead of water, because it has a higher boiling point and can absorb more heat than water. This means high pressure does not build up inside the reactor, reducing the risk of an explosion. The molten salt can also be used as a battery.


Jim Bridger coal plant

Wyoming’s Jim Bridger coal-fired generating station. Photo/Allen Best

Seemingly a messy standoff in Wyoming about the Jim Bridger power plant

WyoFile reports what looks to be a messy standoff about the continued operations of one of the units at the Jim Bridger Power Plant near Rock Springs.

At issue is a regional haze permit. The operator of the coal plant, PacifiCorp, continues to operate unit 2 with a federal permit from the EPA in limbo. It claims that as of Jan. 1 it is operating the unit in compliance with a revised plan approved by Wyoming—but which remains in limbo at the Environmental Protection Agency.

EPA spokesman Rich Mylott told WyoFile that the agency’s primary focus is “continuing to work with the state and stakeholders to identify solutions that are consistent with the Clean Air Act, safeguard public health and air quality, and protect Wyoming’s workers and communities.”

Wyoming Gov. Mark Gordon in late December wrote to the agency warning of a potential shut down that would result in higher costs for electricity being passed on to consumers in Wyoming and across the West.

The first two units of the power plant are to be converted to natural gas in 2024.


No Wyoming finalist in Build Back challenge. Was Biden team biased?

Colorado has seven bordering states, and all of them except one, Wyoming, had at least one project named among the 60 finalists in the Build Back Better Regional Challenge Program from among the 529 applications.

Wyoming’s congressional delegation accused the Biden administration of prejudice, as did the governor, Mark Gordon. “I am furious that this administration has turned its back on the number one coal-producing state,” said Gordon said. U.S. Senator John Barrasso called it a “slap in the face to our coal communities, energy workers and their families.”

U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney said this was why she had voted against the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan Act. Cheney, the lone representative from Wyoming, and the state’s two senators all opposed the bill.

WyoFile explains that the Build Back Better program solicited regional-scale plans to diversify local economies. Coal communities are to be among the priority targets in the federal stimulus effort, as well as native and rural communities.

Cheyenne proposed a commuter trail to Fort Collins. Campbell County, i.e. Gillette, proposed a coal-to-products industry.

Where were the politicians when we needed them? asked Logan Jenkins, a Sheridan businessman. He suggested that state and local officials didn’t make the cut because they didn’t address the program guidelines. And why not? Because of a sense of entitlement. In particular, the proposals lacked regional thinking.

The 60 finalists will compete to be among 3 to 8 regional projects, with each to be awarded $100 million.

What did the 60 finalists look like? Well, you judge whether Wyoming politicos have a point.

The Colorado Coalition, led by Innosphere Ventures, proposes to grow the Colorado Front Range region’s intensive research and development growth cluster in STEM  (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) to rapidly scale the local biosciences and cleantech industries. “If provided an implementation grant, the coalition proposes to develop six construction projects; grow cluster employment, particularly focused on growing the region’s Black and LatinX workforce; and incubate STEM startup ventures, especially increasing those owned by people of color.” See more here.

Nebraska’s Heartland Robotics Cluster

promises to make Nebraska a leader in robotic technologies and advanced manufacturing automation targeting the agriculture industry.

The Utah Energy Diversity and Innovation Cluster Coalition aims to diversify the state’s rural regional economies away from deep dependency on coal mining and coal-powered energy to an interstate regional producer of diverse, reliable, low-carbon power and energy technologies.

In New Mexico, a coalition in the central Rio Grande Valley led by a community college “aims to address and capitalize on the growing commercial space industry.” Another project was centered in Albuquerque.

In Kansas, a coalition led by Wichita State University “aims to empower the adoption of productivity-enhancing technologies to promote manufacturing competitiveness and profitability in the Wichita region” by expanding semiconductor testing, evaluating semiconductor manufacturing, growing resiliency of smart manufacturing, employing an additive manufacturing strategy, expanding the workforce, and establishing a cyber manufacturing sector with the goal of creating job growth.

Oklahoma’s Indian Nations Council of Governments “aims to turn the region (around Tulsa) into a hub for both R&D and production in the advanced mobility industry.”

Arizona has several finalists, including the Hopi Utilities Corporation promise of a large-scale solar project to fill the void of lost revenues and jobs lost with the closure of the Navajo Generating Station coal plan and mining operations.


Major electrical outages in Taos, and possible solutions

A snow storm that toppled trees into electrical lines in 2021 in the Taos area had residents wondering what was going on. The problem continued on Jan. 1 when a 69-kilovolt pole snapped, cutting power to 3,000 to 3,500 people.

The total number of outages had not increased, but the major outages doubled in the year. The Taos News reported getting hundreds of messages from readers who wondered what was going on.

Might putting electrical lines underground be the answer?

Luis Reyes Jr., the chief executive of Kit Carson Electric Cooperative, pointed out that the cost of undergrounding electrical lines runs about three and a half times that of overhead lines. They are also more costly to repair. Those decisions to go underground would be the result of municipal or county edicts.

Another possibility, he said, would be to install steel poles, to harden the system.


No dice, says New Mexico to proposed sale of coal plant to Navajo Nation

A proposal by the Public Service Co. of New Mexico to turn over its share of the Four Corners Power Plant to Navajo Transition Energy Co. was rejected by state regulators in December.

The deal turned on use of securitization, a device adopted by both New Mexico and Colorado as a way to retire coal plants early. PNM, as the utility is called, said the proposal would have saved customers between $30 million and $300 million over the long run.

The Santa Fe New Mexican reported that commissioners emphasized that the proposal didn’t identify replacement power sources for the abandoned coal-fired plant. The utility had wanted to depart from the coal plant at the end of 2024 after paying the Navajo $74 million.

The New Mexican explains that many community and environmental groups objected because PNM’s abandonment proposal did little or nothing to stop the coal plant from operating.

It’s not clear when the plant will close. Arizona Public Service is the majority owner. PNM owns 13% and Navajo Transitional 7%.


New Mexico putting together framework for community solar programs

The New Mexico Public Regulation Commission has until April to establish the framework for community solar programs. The programs are to give opportunities for households and businesses that don’t have access to solar for various reasons to instead subscribe to solar-produced electrical in small, local facilities.

More than 40 states have at least one community solar project. The Solar Energy Industries Association reports more than 3 gigawatts of installed community solar through September 2021. It estimates an additional 4 gigawatts in the next five years.

Allen Best
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