A vote of the Oakland City Council to bar shipments of coal through the city on the way to port has virtually derailed plans to market millions of tons of Utah coal to potential overseas customers. At the same time, Rocky Mountain Power, long a champion of coal-fired electricity, is now pushing programs to offer the benefits of solar power to more of its customers. The two developments are indicators of the cross currents now affecting energy policy, with development of renewable sources clearly moving forward while traditional fossil fuel industries find themselves in a state of eclipse.
In that light, the state’s decision to invest more than $50 million in development of a coal export facility on the San Francisco Bay should be re-examined. Backers of the port may sue to overturn the Oakland council’s action, but it seems unlikely the plan will come to fruition any time soon, if ever, and the money the state is willing to spend to support Utah coal interests could be better spent in assisting those individuals and communities impacted by the diminishing demand for coal-fired power.
The course of transition away from coal is clearly in place. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, coal plants producing 13 GW of power were retired in 2015, while utilities nationwide added 18 GW of power generated by natural gas, wind or solar. In Utah, the percentage of electricity generated by coal remains substantial, but it has continued to fall each year for more than a decade. In 2014, 76 percent of our electricity was coal-fired, compared with 82 percent just four years earlier.
Rocky Mountain Power, which throughout its history has been strongly reliant on coal, last year shut down its coal-fired Carbon Power Plant near Helper. The move was part of what the utility’s parent company sees as a sustained transition toward alternative sources of power. One of those will be solar, which the utility has recently embraced through its Solar Subscriber Program. The utility will allow customers to sign up for “blocks” of solar power generated by a 20-MW plant in Millard County.
That program drew a “shoutout” from HEAL Utah, an environmental organization that has been sharply critical of Rocky Mountain Power’s reliance on what it calls “brown energy.” The organization was also involved in formally opposing the California coal port plan. While proponents of cleaner energy are no doubt delighted by the decision in Oakland, those dependent on Utah’s coal industry are no doubt disappointed, or worse.
More than 3,000 Utahns are directly employed in coal mining, and many communities in Eastern Utah are dependent on that industry. Plans to take Utah coal to international port were seen as a way of sustaining that industry, even though the real demand for coal overseas is arguably less than what backers have implied. Nevertheless, the state’s interests would now be better served by finding ways to manage the transition facing coal-reliant communities, rather than looking for ways to slow a trend that clearly will not be reversed.