By - Jim Vess

Some states move toward carbon-free generation, while others try to save coal plants

Energize Weekly, March 13, 2019

While some states are pushing legislation for 100 percent renewable or carbon-free electricity, Montana and Wyoming are fighting a rearguard action trying to save local coal-fired plants.

On March 4, Democratic Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz proposed a bill to get the state to 100 percent carbon-free electricity by 2050. That same day in New Mexico, a bill to reach 100 percent carbon-free electricity by 2045 was reported out of committee.

In late February, the Washington State Senate passed a bill requiring utilities to stop using coal-fired generation by 2025 and have all retail electricity sales greenhouse gas-neutral by 2030.

Illinois, Florida and Maine all have pending legislation to set a 100 percent renewal energy targets.

The Minnesota bill would expand energy efficiency programs and remove benchmarks that the utility industry has already easily met. The state’s two largest utilities, Xcel Energy and Minnesota Power, support the bill.

The New Mexico bill, which is backed by Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, would require 50 percent renewable generation by 2030, 80 percent by 2040.

The remaining 20 percent would come from non-carbon sources such as battery storage or natural gas generation with carbon-capture technology by 2045. The state’s largest utility, PNM, supports the bill.

Meanwhile, legislation in Montana and Wyoming is seeking to prop up endangered coal-fired power plants.

On Friday, Wyoming Republican Gov. Mark Gordon signed a bill that would require a utility seeking to close a coal-fired plant to make a “good faith effort” to find a buyer for the plant.

If a buyer is found, the utility would be obligated to buy power from the plant. Before the utility could recover costs for building a replacement generation, it would have to meet these requirements.

Wyoming receives 86 percent of electricity from 23 coal-fired units in nine locations across the state.

In December, PacifiCorp, which services Wyoming, Utah and Idaho, said that 60 percent of its western coal fleet is uneconomical compared to market prices for renewable generation.

In Montana, a bill aimed at saving the 778-megawatt Colstrip Power Plant in Colstrip, a town of about 2,200 people in the southeast corner of the state, has been reported out of the Senate energy committee.

The Colstrip plant is owned by six utilities, only one of which is interested in the continued operation of the plant. PacifiCorp, Avista and Puget Sound Energy, all owners in the plant, serve parts of Washington and Oregon, two states looking to end getting electricity from coal-fired generation.

Two of the plant’s units are set to close in 2022 and the remaining units are slated to be shut in 2027.

The one owner-utility that has expressed interest in continuing to operate the plant is Sioux Fall, S.D.-based NorthWestern Energy. The pending legislation would allow it to buy Colstrip’s newest unit for $1 and pass the savings on to customers.

“This bill would be comical had it not actually passed out of the Senate energy committee,” Travis Kavulla, a former Montana Public Service Commission member, told GTM Daily.

“I have honestly never seen a piece of legislation that is so completely ridiculous in the political balance that it tries to strike,” said Kavulla, now director of energy and environment for the free-market think tank, R Street.

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