Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Natural gas may be the future at Utah's giant coal plant

By John Hollenhorst, Deseret News

Published: Mon, March 24 9:55 p.m. MDT

 IPP power plant near Delta Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2012. Intermountain Power Project located just north of Delta, Utah, were created in 1976 to meet the power needs of some 23 public agencies and municipalities in Utah photographed Wednesday,  Feb. 15, 2012, according to the Utah Geological Survey.

IPP power plant near Delta Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2012. Intermountain Power Project located just north of Delta, Utah, were created in 1976 to meet the power needs of some 23 public agencies and municipalities in Utah photographed Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2012, according to the Utah Geological Survey.

(Winston Armani, Deseret News)

DELTA — One of the nation's largest power plants is on the verge of a momentous change of direction.

Pushed by the science and politics of climate change, Utah's Intermountain Power Project will likely hitch its future to natural gas instead of coal.

For three decades, the plant has had a huge appetite for coal. It comes in by rail — 100 rail-cars a day — 100 tons of coal per carload. The carbon-rich fuel fires boilers that drive turbines generating 1,800 megawatts of electricity.

Last year alone IPP burned 5 million tons of coal.

But coal may be on its way out. IPP's participants are on the verge of approving a gigantic billion-dollar makeover involving new power units fueled by natural gas instead of coal.

"We're hoping that this year we'll get things wrapped up and the scope of that project fully put together," said John Ward, spokesman for the Intermountain Power Agency.

If it happens over the next decade or so, the change of direction at IPP will be greeted with enthusiasm by many environmental groups.

"It is a good thing," said Tim Wagner of the Sierra Club. "The less coal we burn, the better it is, not only for our air quality but for the climate."

Ironically, the long-range and very expensive decision is being driven by climate change issues in California rather than by the 23 Utah towns and cities that actually own IPP.

Ever since the plant first fired-up in the mid-1980s, nearly all the electricity from IPP has been sent to Los Angeles and five other cities in California, a state where climate change is taken seriously and where state regulations are pushing back against coal.

"The six California utilities, who have purchased more than 99 percent of the power over the life of this project, are prohibited from continuing to take coal power after the current purchase agreements expire in 2027," Ward explained.

Only a few years ago, IPP was seriously considering a big expansion of coal operations, so the change of direction might not be happening without a big shove from California.

"I don't think so," Wagner said. "I think there's such a strong allegiance to dirty energy and fossil fuel in (Utah) by some of our leaders. They see renewable energy as possibly a threat to that business model. And that's really unfortunate because that's where the future lies."

IPP seems to be re-positioning itself for that new energy future.

"The project is becoming a hub for other energy development here in central Utah," Ward said. "We have rail access, we have highway access, we have water. ... Everything is already here that makes it attractive for energy development."

IPP infrastructure already serves as an electronic pathway to the national energy grid for a big wind farm near Milford. A 300 megawatt solar energy farm is in the works less than a mile from IPP. Also, across the highway, giant salt caverns are being mined by Magnum Development to provide underground storage space for energy-related products.

Magnum eventually hopes to build caverns that would be used to "store" electricity. When extra electricity is available from solar or wind farms, it could be used to pump compressed air into the ground. When released later, the compressed air would generate electricity by pushing turbines on its way out of the ground.

Although a decision to build natural-gas units at IPP in coming years now seems nearly certain, no decisions have been made yet on whether to sell or dismantle the coal-fired units. Without customers in California, though, and with tougher federal pollution controls coming down the line, coal's future at IPP looks questionable in coming decades.

email: Hollenhorst@desertnews.com

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1. itsjustme
Vernal, UT,
March 25, 2014

If the State of California wants coal-free electricity, why don't they build their own power plants in their own State to supply all of their own electricity needs? They keep closing the power plants that they have, which requires them to buy most of their electricity from other States.

I really hope that the day comes where electric generating companies tell them to take their business elsewhere, and leave those of us that don't want to live the way they choose to live alone.

California is failing, and they are trying to take everyone else down with them.

2. Baron Scarpia
Logan, UT,
March 25, 2014

This is good news.

Two key benefits with gas: One, it can be easily ramped up and down to match the variability of increasing levels of renewable energy on the system. When free wind blows or sun shines, you can easily throttle back natural gas production and preserve it as a future fuel -- can't do that with either coal or nuclear power. The ability to match load with clean, fuel-free energy helps modernize the overall energy system through diversification and flexibility.

Two, igniting gas on fire emits half the carbon of burning coal, so from a climate change perspective, it is better than coal. The one issue with gas is fracking and release of methane at gas wells, and these are issues that still persist.

The benefit of more renewables on the system is reduced water use. Wind and PV solar require no water. Few realize how significant this can be in the desert West and for ag communities.

Sadly, too many in Utah want to be the "keeper of the flame" for fossil fuels -- but this consumes our water and pollutes our air.

3. high school fan
Huntington, UT,
March 25, 2014

And the winner in all this is? Not the coal miner who is now unemployed, not the railroad worker who is also unemployed nor the home natural gas user who now pays more because prices are up because demand is up. Utah coal, unlike back east coal, is much cleaner and the government already makes the power plants clean.
This is driven by Californians who simply have no clue and don't care mixed in with a few that have an agenda and their actions will eventually cost us all more.

4. A_Chinese_American
Cedar Hills, UT,
March 25, 2014

IMHO, overall this is a bad news for Utah and US, which indicates the trend of events that Energy price will be much higher and US economics competition power will be decreased in the long run. While I can say we need to protect our environment seriously but we also need to maintain our economic development. Economics efficiency is the key element to support our national competition power, for which we are falling currently under current national leaders.

5. justamacguy
Manti, UT,
March 25, 2014

Oh yes... this is a great environmental victory taking one us coal plant off line when China is putting a new coal plant online every month. Don't worry... when the gas runs dry, you will gladly be back to coal.