Utilities should dump coal to lower power bills

Coal-fired plants are more expensive than renewable alternatives like wind power.

 

Cesia Kearns is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News. She is the Northwest deputy director of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign.


Imagine you need to buy a car, but there’s only one car dealer in your community. When you arrive at the lot, all you see are clunkers that cost more than a new car and get much worse mileage than the new car’s 62 miles per gallon. When you ask the salesman why better options aren’t available, he says: “What you see is what you get.”

So you end up having to buy a 1972 truck that costs the same as the 2018 model, and then get ready to swallow the fuel and maintenance costs that will double the overall price. You feel like you’ve been taken advantage of, but what choice did you have?

This scenario is unfolding right now across the Western United States, except that the car dealer we’re talking about is actually PacifiCorp, the largest energy provider in the West and — for nearly 2 million people — the only one. And instead of old, inefficient cars, the clunkers involved are the utility’s aging coal-fired power plants.

A retired coal-fired power plant in Price Canyon, Utah.

PacifiCorp serves customers in Utah, Wyoming, Oregon, Idaho, Washington and California. These customers know that over half of the utility’s energy production comes from aging coal plants that are facing stiff competition from increasingly more affordable clean energy resources. Why won’t their utility trade in the older, expensive model for a newer, cheaper and cleaner one?

This was the question the Oregon Public Utilities Commission posed in 2017, when it required the company to do its first open economic assessment of its coal plants. The study was released on June 28, but not to the public — to the dismay of many people, it remains secret. PacifiCorp has no plans to share this information with its customers. A company spokesman told the Portland Business Journal that “confidentiality is necessary to ensure the system isn’t gamed and to protect customers.”

This unnecessary secrecy creates many problems. The most glaring is that PacifiCorp is intentionally leaving customers in the dark about how its coal-fired units compare to clean-energy alternatives. If PacifiCorp were happy with the study’s results, it wouldn’t hide them.

Second, the state of Oregon is already joining its coastal neighbors in eliminating coal-fired plants. This means that if coal costs continue to climb, the risk will be borne by customers in the states of Idaho, Wyoming and, primarily, Utah. Industrial consumers such as manufacturers, universities and farmers in those states could also see an increase in rates.

PacifiCorp’s refusal to join today’s energy transformation movement means it is being left behind as neighboring utilities push ahead in choosing less risky, less expensive and less polluting options. For example, Xcel Energy, another large utility provider in the West, is ditching expensive coal units in Colorado and will bring savings to its customers by fully investing in solar, wind, electricity storage and energy efficiency.

PacifiCorp’s economic analysis — if it ever does become public — would most likely confirm that many of its coal units cannot compete with wind and solar. Meanwhile, just for comparison, the Sierra Club commissioned an economic analysis from the Utah-based, independent energy consulting firm, Energy Strategies.

Using publicly available data, this independent analysis compared the present value of each of the utility’s coal-fired power plant’s operating and capital costs with alternatives such as market purchases, solar and wind. We knew there’d be some information gaps, because only PacifiCorp knows how much it spends on operating its plants and on the terms of its fuel contracts.

What did Energy Strategies find? Bad news for PacfiCorp: Half of its coal-fired power plants run at a higher cost than solar or market purchases from PacifiCorp’s neighbors. Almost all of PacifiCorp’s 22 coal units run at a higher cost than wind.

So what did PacifiCorp find? We may never know. But the Sierra Club is dedicated to getting answers, which is why it is challenging the utility’s decision to keep its findings under lock and key. We do know that only 7 percent of PacifiCorp’s energy production comes from wind and a pathetic 0.08 percent from solar. So though PacifiCorp claims to be a “clean energy leader,” it is actually a coal-heavy user that balks at tapping into the abundant wind and solar potential throughout all of its service territory.

The facts are clear: The costs of coal are going up, and these costs are a significant driver of customers’ energy bills. We’ve seen real-world examples of how customers can save money when utilities shift from coal to clean energy. PacifiCorp can hide its own numbers from customers, but it doesn’t change these facts. It’s time for PacifiCorp to become the energy leader it pretends to be.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].

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