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Critics urge Rocky Mountain Power to abandon more coal faster

Sierra Club, others say energy plan does’t go far enough

Christopher Thomas, senior representative for the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign, speaks to reporters and power customers during a rally demanding strong and clear action plans to transition away from coal at Rocky Mountain Power’s headquarters in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Oct. 9, 2019.
Christopher Thomas, senior representative for the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign, speaks to reporters and power customers during a rally demanding strong and clear action plans to transition away from coal at Rocky Mountain Power’s headquarters in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Oct. 9, 2019.
Laura Seitz, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — A draft 20-year energy plan by PacifiCorp, the parent company of Rocky Mountain Power, would accelerate the closure of seven coal plant units, but critics say it still leaves more than half its coal power in operation after 2030.

“Fifty-five percent of coal capacity will still be running after 2030, and that’s not acceptable,” said Christopher Thomas of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign.

Thomas, along with representatives from two other groups, delivered 4,000 petitions to the power company from utility customers who want revisions of the draft plan, which is scheduled for final approval next week.

Spencer Hall, Rocky Mountain Power spokesman, met the group outside the offices on Wednesday, thanking them.

“We really appreciate the input. It makes a difference,” he told the group of about 20 people gathered outside. “We all have differences on timing. ... We are trying to get there as quickly as we can.”

Hall said the plan envisions retirement of 16 of 24 coal-fired units by 2030, including retirements already announced, and amounts to nearly 2,800 megawatts of electrical generation going offline by then.

Earlier, Thomas did praise the company, which he said for the first time in its energy plan acknowledged the role of renewable energy as a replacement for the power generated by retiring coal plants.

Hall also pointed out to the group that the draft plan calls for 7,000 megawatts of renewable energy to come online in the next several years and a 43% reduction in emissions in the next five years.

“Customer preference is driving change,” he said. “We all breathe the same air and live in the same communities.”

But the Sierra Club, Utah Youth Environmental Solutions and the Holladay United Church of Christ want more coal plants retired more quickly, particularly Utah’s units at the Hunter and Huntington power plants in Emery County.

“God calls us to care for the planet. This means cleaning up our energy system,” said Pastor Fred Evenson. “It means taking care of coal communities.”

Evenson, in his speech to the group, urged the utility company to do more to help coal-dependent communities in rural Utah transition away from the fossil fuel.

Hall said when the last power plant closed in Helper in 2015, employees who wanted to retain their job remained with the company, as with a Wyoming power plant closure. The company also offers free tuition to its employees as a benefit, and not part of a union mandate, he said.

But Mishka Banuri, student organizer at Utah Youth Environmental Solutions and recent graduate of West High School in Salt Lake City, decried the effects of a changing climate and emphasized the risk of waiting too long to cut carbon emissions.

“It’s putting people’s health in jeopardy,” she said.

Banuri brought up Utah Gov. Gary Herbert’s drought declaration last year, the environmental effects that hurt farmers and unpredictable snowfall that jeopardizes the state’s water supply.

For her future and that of others, she added, the utility company needs to listen to its customers.

Hall reassured the group the utility company is paying attention.

“You’ve been heard.”