In the corporate jet terminal of Portland International Airport, PacifiCorp Senior Vice President Scott Bolton is getting ready to fly to Southern Oregon for an event with customers of a subsidiary, Pacific Power.
The company plane arrives carrying PacifiCorp CEO Stefan Bird, who’s on his way back from a company picnic in Utah for employees of PacifiCorp’s other subsidiary, Rocky Mountain Power.
Having its own plane and pilot helps the utility stay in touch with its widely divergent territories, which stretch from the Rocky Mountains to the West Coast.
And when it comes to coal, the distance between its customers only grows.
This month, PacifiCorp released a 20-year power plan that cuts way back on coal-fired power and ramps up renewable wind and solar. The plan exposes a harsh reality: With more than half of its power still coming from coal, the utility is stuck in the middle of a regional tug of war over the future of coal in the West.
The West Coast states the company serves have firm plans to stop paying for coal-fired power. And they’re increasingly focused on reducing contributions to climate change like the carbon emissions that come from burning coal. But PacifiCorp customers in the Rocky Mountain states are still staffing its fleet of power plants and mining the coal they’re scheduled to be using for many years to come.
Every year, Bolton travels all over Oregon giving energy updates to the company’s mostly rural customers. An hour-long plane ride lands him in Klamath Falls to host the company’s 14th “energy pub talk” of the year.
Bolton’s update for the south-central Oregon gathering is a big one.
“We’re kind of at an interesting point of a journey of a company that’s almost 120 years old,” he tells the crowd. “We’re facing some serious challenges. When I first came to the company, 15 years ago now, we got more than 80% of our power from coal, and that’s changing.”
The company’s new power plan calls for shutting down more than three-quarters of its coal fleet in the Rockies over the next 20 years. In its place, the company plans to nearly triple its wind energy and build massive new solar farms with battery storage.
The plan calls for the early retirement of seven coal units at four power plants in Rocky Mountain states – with some closures coming more than a decade ahead of schedule.
Company officials say the new plan could save $300 million to $500 million as older coal plants get more expensive to run and renewable energy like wind and solar get cheaper. But they also recognize that closing coal plants before their scheduled retirement dates will mean job losses for many towns in Rocky Mountain states, and they have pledged to help them with the transition.
‘We Feel Stranded’
While some of the company’s customers have pushed for this change, others are fighting to keep coal plants running longer because of the economic benefits they bring to Rocky Mountain states and the impacts of closing them early.
Wyoming Sen. Ogden Driskill said the company is breaking the promises it made to the communities that support its coal plants.
“I have no problem with someone that wants to use a hundred percent renewables, but you certainly shouldn’t penalize us for it,” he said. “Our state invested billions of dollars in infrastructure to support these facilities and now we feel stranded because they’re going to prematurely shut them down.”
Driskill recently passed a bill that requires utilities to put their coal plants up for sale before shutting them down early - so that someone else might keep them going. He said towns like Kemmerer, Wyoming, where PacifiCorp runs the Naughton Power Plant, were built around coal mining and coal-fired power, and when the power plant closes they’ll lose more than just the jobs at the plant.
“The lifeblood of that town is around mining coal for power plants,” he said. “There’s not a lot of town left when you’re done.”
Giving Up On Coal
Meanwhile, Oregon and Washington have passed bills moving in the opposite direction. They require that the states’ utility customers no longer pay for coal-fired power, regardless whether their power company’s coal-fired plants are still running.
“I think there’s a recognition that different states are going to go in different directions,” Bob Jenks, director of the Oregon Citizens Utility Board said. “The dynamics are pretty clear. The Western three states are moving toward a cleaner system and the other three states, the three Rocky Mountain states, have coal plants that provide jobs to their communities which is something they don’t want to give up on.”
Jenks is involved in a confidential negotiation process taking place among the states PacifiCorp serves to decide who is going to pay for what kind of power in the future. With Oregon and Washington walking away from coal, that leaves other states paying for the coal plants that are still running.
“That means the other states have to make a decision,” Jenks said. “Do they want the coal that Oregon’s giving up on?”
In some ways, Jenks said, the West’s Rocky Mountain states are being forced to confront the reality of climate change.
“Climate change is real, and the politicians in Wyoming that refuse to accept climate change is real they’ve got to get there,” he said. “We’ve got to adapt our energy systems with it. And coal is not going to be part of that energy future.”
Environmental groups say PacifiCorp should be moving away from coal even faster. They argue the company should be closing more of its plants sooner.
“We’re not asking them to turn off the plants tomorrow, but a full phase-out is what the economics are pointing to,” said Cesia Kearns with the Sierra Club. “And it’s what we have a moral imperative to do given climate change.”
Changing The Grid
PacifiCorp officials say there’s also a risk that closing coal plants too quickly will raise electricity prices or leave the company without enough power to serve its customers.
The company’s planning process has dragged on months longer than expected. But Bolton says it’s worth the extra time.
“It’s important to get it right,” Bolton said. “We’re going to change the very nature of the grid, I think, with some of the results of this plan.”
The company will be submitting a final version of its plan later this month, and it will need to be approved by all six states.