Troubling future of coal hits DJ

Mike Moore photos
Control operator Josh Blackburn manages the plant’s daily operations from a series of monitors Sept. 16 at Dave Johnston Power Plant.

Cinthia Stimson

It’s a move they say will save the company and their 1.99 million customers upwards of $599 million during the next two decades. PacifiCorp has released draft plans to shutter their coal-fired power plants across Wyoming – including the Dave Johnston Plant outside Glenrock – and in other states.
That is one of several potential scenarios announced in the 2019 Integrated Resource Plan (IRP), but all the options show the DJ plant closing by 2027. While nothing is final yet, the company will announce its IRP decisions Oct. 18, with “public input meetings” tentatively scheduled for Oct. 3-4 but no times or locations have been made public. Renewable solar and wind energy is set to replace the coal-fired plants.
If their plan to close the plants become reality, they will be putting hundreds, if not thousands, of people out of jobs.
Early closures cited in the plan reveal Dave Johnston Power Plant would be completely decommissioned in 2027 should the company decide next month that closing the coal-fired plants is the way to go. RMP has long said two of the four units at DJ would be shut down but left the door open for the other two to remain in operation – until now.
Built in the 50s, the power plant’s first unit went online in 1959. Today, the plant employs just under 200 people, mostly sourced from Glenrock, Douglas and Casper.
Other plants within the state scheduled for possible closure include the Naughton Plant six years from now and the Jim Bridger Plant in 13 years, according to PacifiCorp’s plans announced at public stakeholder meetings in Salt Lake City, Utah, and Portland, Oregon, Sept. 5-6.
If the coal-fired Johnston power plant’s doors are permanently closed, Converse County stands to lose its largest industrial property tax generator and Glenrock stands to lose the town’s biggest private employer.
Glenrock Mayor and business owner Bruce Roumell said thoughts of the plant shutting down for good  leave him deeply concerned and worried for his community. If Rocky Mountain Power (a subsidiary of PacifiCorp) decommissions DJ, it will be detrimental beyond just Glenrock.
“It will dramatically effect employment, not just at the plant, but with other subcontractors . . . the ripple effect will be huge, it’ll snowball, affecting the Powder River Basin, the coal industry, the railroad industry. It’s a major impact to the state of Wyoming. It will be absolutely devastating here in Glenrock, but it will also impact the entire state,” Roumell said.
Employees at the plant have been worried for months.
Dave Johnston Plant Director Jim Bolinger is a second-generation power man. He moved to Wyoming and Glenrock as a kid in 1968 and started working in the industry in Douglas 28 years ago.
Bolinger doesn’t dance around the fact that the national discussion revolving around coal takes a toll on those in the industry.
“I’ll just be frank. It’s brutal,” Bolinger said in an interview with the Budget in January. “Everybody’s in fear of (the plant) closing and going away.”
Bolinger did not return calls to the Budget this week requesting further comment on the possibility of the plant’s permanent closure in less than 10 years.
PacifiCorp’s IRP made its first appearance during Salt Lake City and Portland meetings.
While the company’s plans are not final at this point, the IRP does demonstrate 30 options that the company said could use to deliver power.
While the company has provided itself and shareholders with numerous options to continue to provide power and save the company money, the seemingly most popular option  – the one that will save shareholders and the company $599 million over the next two decades – makes one thing inordinately clear: If they follow their analysis in most of the options and especially in the one named “Portfolio 46,” coal is out.
Throughout the IRP, it is evident that renewable energy is a threat to coal in the long run.
Bolinger said in January that he feels that the depiction of wind power in the media tends to be unfair and misleading, especially when the topic comes around to cost. He maintains that coal is cheaper when you remove government subsidies.
Renewable energy is an important part of an energy portfolio for the sake of the environment and consumers, he said. At the same time he doesn’t want coal to become obsolete.
“I would hate to see us become 100 percent dependent on renewables,” he said.
For months, Bolinger has continued to work in a facility with a scheduled closure date, but he doesn’t think Dave Johnston is destined for retirement as soon as everyone thinks.
“Internally, in my heart, I don’t believe it,” Bolinger said back in January. “I don’t see it happening.”
However, dramatic changes to the DJ plant could extend the life of the plant beyond 2027, should someone step forward to take on a big makeover – either by turning the plant into one operating with natural gas or taking advantage of carbon  (CO2) capture.
If any of the four units at the plant were to be outfitted with a carbon capture unit, it might mean longevity for one or two units of the plant rather than shutting it down entirely. Earlier this year, that looked like a possibility with several proposals on the table, but the IRP doesn’t even mention it as an option.
Converse County Commissioner Robert Short said people are talking about the potential of using captured carbon for tertiary oil recovery, but the problem is, there’s just too many variables involved with that option.
“Carbon capture is a very lively topic. There’s multiple groups interested in the CO2 emissions. However, if the scrubbing system is not owned by the utility owner, there will be challenges. If the suppliers of the flue stream are not the same as the owner of the CO2, it is extremely difficult to negotiate a contract where all parties would feel that they have some certainty in their (endeavor) in the event of one party’s failure,” Short said.
Roumell said he is aware of several different people in the local area and individuals with the oil industry who are in contact with Rocky Mountain Power in regards to carbon recapture.
Names of the currently interested parties were not disclosed.
“Carbon capture is not a bad idea, but it’s expensive. I’ve seen another interested party involving a recommissioned plant in Idaho that went to nuclear (energy). I was asked if that’s something that can be looked at out here, but I don’t know.
“Rocky Mountain Power is different to deal with. Property-wise, they are looking for tax credits. Tax credits are more important to them than making a dime, at least that’s how I’m looking at it,” Roummell said.
He believes the current state of affairs surrounding the plants in Wyoming is not good.
“(Dave Johnston) power plant is paid for and making money, but it seems it’s cheaper to decommission it – the tax credits are more valuable than running it. I am very concerned for where the state of Wyoming’s economy is going,” he said.
As things stand now, if the plant should close, it will be a terrible blow to Converse County’s economy, Short said.
“If Dave Johnston is closed, Converse County School District No. 2 (Glenrock schools) will be heavily impacted on revenues. The economy in Converse County will suffer because of the huge loss of jobs. Many of the employees at Dave Johnston commute from other counties and that has an impact on us locally as well. The potential of the plant shutting down is extremely worrisome,” he said.
Spencer Hall, Rocky Mountain Power’s manager of marketing and communications, did not return calls for comment on the proposed Wyoming plant closures.
At present, the Dave Johnston plant generates a great deal of power.
When online, the generator of unit 4 alone can produce 330 megawatts; 3 is good for 220 MW and units 1 and 2 produce 100 MW apiece. For comparison, the Pioneer Wind Park and the Top of the World Wind Farm each generate fewer than 100 megawatts.
Barring the need for repairs, the circular, steam-powered process never stops.
For Alan Dugan, Dave Johnston Power Plant’s director of engineering, the iconic Glenrock facility has been a constant for most of his life. He’s been at the plant 34 years, he told the Budget in January.
Steam flows from high-pressure to low-pressure turbines and is then re-heated before heading back to the boiler.
“That’s the advantage we have over wind,” Dugan said. “It just keeps going.”
On average, the plant uses between 4.5 and 5 million gallons of river water per day, and while the plant’s coal supply isn’t quite as close as it used to be up until 2000, all of the facility’s daily coal supply – 135 train cars worth – comes from the nearby Powder River Basin.
PacifiCorp, just about a month from now, will face the difficult decision to decommission their coal-fired electric plants or not.
“It’s a very difficult scenario with a lot of moving parts. The impact on our county is going to be very severe in some places if they shut down DJ,” Short said.
Trying to be optimistic, the commissioner said it would “be wonderful if they built a new gas-fired plant or converted it over – not to suggest we eradicate coal. For the same thermal unit, the CO2 is cut in half (with natural gas) per thermal unit produced (with coal). That’s pretty substantial. But, gas can’t be stockpiled. That is one of the things  that makes coal so attractive, it can be stockpiled on site. It’s very complicated. So many people have their own goals in mind that they may never cross paths,” Short said.
Converse County Commissioner Jim Willox said he blames the potential closure on the war on coal.
“This is part of what is enticing PacifiCorp to make these decisions and lending a strong influence to these closures. Customer demands are also changing. People want more renewables,” he said.
“If it closes, we will be disappointed to lose Dave Johnston as a big employer and a tax base. They’ve been a major part of the county for a long, long time. They’re an anchor employer in Converse County, especially in Glenrock,” he said.
But, not everyone agrees.
Sierra Club’s Wyoming Chapter Director Connie Wilbert said that PacifiCorp’s own analysis shows that keeping aging coal plants running will mean higher electricity bills for Wyoming families and businesses.
“Now is the time to help coal-dependent communities make an orderly transition away from coal rather than risking the sort of sudden job losses that we’ve seen in recent coal bankruptcies,” she said.
“Wyoming can no longer keep its head in the sand on the declining economics of coal power.”


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