Staying Power: How coal will evolve in the energy landscape

The long-term outlook for coal in Utah all boils down to this: coal will look different in Utah’s future—but it’s not going away. It just might get a face lift.

Yes, we know Utah’s largest coal-fueled power plant—Intermountain Power Plant—announced it would stop coal operations by 2025. And yes, cheaper alternatives such as natural gas drive today’s demand. Plus, coal requires constant environmental upkeep. So you might think that coal is on the way out. But some Utah experts want you to dig deeper.

Dr. Laura Nelson, director of the Governor’s Office of Energy Development, says we’ll still use coal in the future because using a diverse group of energy resources is the key to affordability and sustainability. Why get rid of a resource that still has potential if we can use technology improvements to make it cleaner?

“We’re not here to pick winners and losers when it comes to our resources,” says Nelson, the governor’s energy adviser. “We’re still going to use coal. But how we use it might look different.”

Utah gets about 76 percent of its electricity from coal-powered plants, Nelson says. On a 2017 online factsheet, Rocky Mountain Power (through PacifiCorp) listed coal, natural gas and wind as the three largest energy production contributors to Utah’s energy mix. Coal is number one—by a long shot. Back in the ‘70s and ‘80s, coal took up even more of the energy mix at 90 percent.

Dave Eskelsen, spokesperson for Rocky Mountain Power, says coal will probably decline to about one-third—or 35 percent of the energy mix—during the next decade or so.

One of the main reasons coal is on the decline is cost: other resources offer a cheaper price to Utah utility customers. Generally speaking, prices drive the market and Rocky Mountain Power seeks out the inexpensive, stable resources for its customers.

“Price and reliability,” Eskelsen says. “We’re held to a high standard, and that’s been interpreted to be ‘what’s the lowest cost you can provide electricity and maintain high reliability.’ That’s what our planning cares about.”

Nelson says natural gas is inexpensive, so the demand is up.

“That’s had the biggest impact on coal use, bigger than policy or renewables,” Nelson says. “Those may have also worked to displace coal but the critical underpinning—and this can’t be understated—is our electric system is complex and different resources support the reliability of that system. It’s never as simple as just replacing one resource with another.”

Power costs

Historically, natural gas has volatile prices associated with it because producing power isn’t the only thing we use for natural gas. If natural gas gets more expensive, we’ll need another alternative, and that’s when coal might show up strong again. We typically only use coal for electricity, says Dr. Andrew Fry, clean coal technology expert at Brigham Young University, which gives coal a demand advantage. And if we look at energy forecasts to support the United States during the next 30 or 40 years, we’re going to need all hands on deck.

“[We’ll need] natural gas, nuclear, coal, all the renewables we can get,” Fry says. “So it’s within our best interest to continue developing these technologies to have a zero emissions stream.”

Rocky Mountain Power’s entire history involves adapting to technology changes. The modern electric utility developed after World War II and during the first time of electric service to customers, Eskelsen says you could only get electricity on Mondays for washing clothes. If a full moon was out, people didn’t light the street lights. Today, people operate on USB charge cords, hand-held computers, and laundry any day of the week. In the electric world of 2018, customer demands greatly affect the technology a utilities company uses.

“But if you look at the arc of our history, we’ve responded to every technology change that has come our way and done it in a way that kept electricity at a low cost,” says Eskelsen.

Power companies are focused on maintaining that position and finding solutions so the customer doesn’t have to—even when the traditional solution is coal. Fry says we don’t understand or even think about where our power comes from, or why we pay what we do for power.

“For [customers] it’s, ‘I plug in my phone and it charges, and then I pay a bill at the end of the month.’ It’s important to help people understand what is involved in producing power. It would be amazing if we could take every single person and tour a coal-fired utility boiler and see the magnitude of what could happen to get electricity,” says Fry.

Utility companies aren’t as interested in developing new technology because of cost, Fry continues. Before it gets on their radar, the technology needs to be well developed and ready to install. So far, the technology that would turn coal into ‘clean coal’ is in the development stage, with cost barriers in the way of the installation phase.

Technology vs. cost

The life of a coal plant life is usually 30 to 40 years, with some exceptions. Fry says because the energy landscape is changing so rapidly, it’s possible those plants might be finished before their retirement date. We’ve improved the designs of wind power and natural gas generating plants, he says, and that means higher efficiencies and low costs. Coal plants were taken out of long-term planning back in 2006.

“We don’t anticipate that new coal plants will be built on our systems,” Fry says. “That’s a combination of cost and risk. As concern about carbon emissions for coal plants have affected long-range planning, people have talked about carbon taxes and cap and trade programs. The risks for a new coal plant are simply too great.”

Eskelsen says because we don’t expect to build any more coal plants, there might be a day where we don’t use coal. But take note: he says “might.” According to Fry and Nelson, there’s good reason why coal would transition into something else if the technology keeps up and stays cheap.

Experts in Utah have updated old power plants with new technology that incorporates emission controls, which better meet our environmental standards. Fry says this allows the coal plants to live a longer life span and be relevant in a world where we want cleaner emissions.

“We’ve done a really good job at that,” Fry says. “In the ‘80s and ‘90s, there were big problems with acid rain. And big problems with nitrogen oxide emissions. We did some research, figured out how to build pollution control devices for these plants and found out that we could remove those pollutants. We have very good technologies now.”

So we’ve got the right technology to cut out much of coal’s environmental impact, but we’re not going to build more coal plants? As far as we know, no. That’s because the best and cleanest technology tends to be more expensive to install.

A coal power plant produces a lot of CO2. What new coal technology could do is capture and concentrate that CO2, and compress it into a fluid. Then the fluid could be pushed underground in a certain way that caps the CO2 and doesn’t allow it to come back to the surface.

“I’m aware of several different methodologies on firing coal where you can collect all or nearly all of the emissions, reform some of them into usable product and others you can put into the ground,” Fry says. “But as you can imagine, this is costs a little bit more so it has an efficiency penalty associated with it. If we decide we want to do it, it’s going to cost more. You’ve got to weigh that with other technologies and see what makes best sense.”

Eskelsen says even though the technology currently exists, it produces more expensive power than gas and wind. So we select the cheaper source instead.

“That’s the decision that has driven our entire history,” Eskelsen says.

One new factor in the delicate balance is a new tax incentive for carbon capture technologies that was included in the budget bill passed by Congress in February. The incentives are meant to fuel new innovation and hasten the adoption of carbon capture storage technologies.

In the meantime, Nelson says Utah offers rich natural resources that have been foundational to our economy. So while clean coal technology works to become more mainstream and inexpensive, we’ll continue tapping into the other renewable resources that Utah supplies.

Nelson says there’s evidence that continuing to use coal is consistent with realizing our environmental objectives with cleaner air. She says her office is already realizing the value of technology advancements and benefits of using more than one resource at a time.

“We need to balance the system across the board,” Nelson says. “Coal will continue to be very important. … I always say to folks, we are a natural resource state whether we’re talking about renewable, conventional, minerals—that has been the foundational to our economy. I think that legacy will continue. How it evolves over time is likely to be multifaceted.”