Victim of times, Kemmerer coal-fired generator shuts down


By Angus M. Thuermer Jr., WyoFile.com

KEMMERER — Operators at PacifiCorp’s Naughton Plant shut down Unit 3 this week, a giant furnace and electrical generator that consumed 165 tons of coal an hour.

Part of the three-unit Naughton Plant outside this town of 2,747, Unit 3’s warren of conveyor belts, robust coal grinder, towering boiler, maze of steam pipes and spinning generator will fall silent —  a casualty of environmental regulations and market forces beyond its control.

Restrictions imposed by the Clean Air Act, state regulations, an abundant supply of natural gas, new solar and wind power sources and customer preferences set the industrial complex on its heels. The Naughton Plant sprawls across 1,120 acres near the Kemmerer coal mine and can generate up to 700 megawatts of electricity. Its first unit was commissioned in 1963, 56 years ago.

The Naughton Plant employs approximately 126 workers, down about 25 percent — about 31 workers — through attrition over the past five years, Plant Managing Director Rodger Holt said. Unit 3, which generates 280 megawatts net, can power 140,000 homes, said Dave Eskelsen, a spokesman for PacifiCorp and its subsidiary Rocky Mountain Power.

Holt, who has worked 17 years with PacifiCorp and served at the Naughton Plant since 2006, chose his assignment in Kemmerer because of the plant and town. He has a casual but businesslike rapport with the workers he meets when he walks among the plant’s catwalks, decks, shops, offices and labs.

“I like it here,” Holt said in his office at the back of the 20-story high plant. “I have a house. I love the community.”

But it would take “a couple of hundred million dollars,” Holt said, to upgrade Unit 3 to meet emission limits for nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas, and other pollutants while burning coal. And that’s not going to happen.

“This is it,” he said last week. “There’s no other way out.”

Everything at the Naughton Plant is huge, except workers on the ground when seen from a catwalk at the top level of the complex. “We call it 10 stories but ours are a lot bigger than normal,” he says. “It’s probably a 16- to 20-story building.” Naughton Plant operates 24/7, 365 days a year.

The adjacent Kemmerer Mine feeds the hungry plant. Conveyor belts and trucks bring coal from the Westmoreland pit-and-shovel operation to Holt’s doorstep.

A giant coal pile of 225,000 tons rises to the south of Naughton. Conveyor belts shuttle the coal to three two-story-high grinders — one for each unit. They mill the chunks into a powder that ductwork whooshes into four sides of three separate boiler fireboxes.

The Viva Naughton Reservoir on the Hams Fork of the Green River supplies the water. The impoundment was named after the wife of Edward Naughton, the president of Utah Power & Light Co. that built the complex now owned by Rocky Mountain Power.

High-pressure steam pipes run from boilers to the three generators. Steam spins each generator at 3,600 revolutions a minute — so fast one can’t see an exposed shaft rotate.

Open-air catwalks and gangways traverse past towering smokestacks and cooling towers that billow steam and emissions into the Rocky Mountain winter air. “Most of what you see is water vapor,” he says.

In the control room, a bank of about 30 computer screens stretches some 50 feet across the power plant’s nerve center. Last week Steve Burgess was at the helm of Unit 3, rattling off the plant’s statistics, pointing to graphs, flow charts and spreadsheets as he explained some workings.

He pushed a big red emergency button in a demonstration. About 50 lights began to blink but Burgess deactivated them before any audible alarm, horn or claxon blared.

An emergency isn’t what shut down Unit 3 at the Naughton Plant today. Instead, it was the dense pages of regulatory speak published in the Federal Register — the government’s official public-notice newspaper — on Jan. 30, 2014.

On that date the EPA published a proposed rule accepting Wyoming’s state implementation plan designed to meet Clean Air Act regional haze standards. The state plan envisioned Unit 3 ceasing as a coal-burning enterprise within five years.

Conversations about converting the plant from coal to gas to meet the Wyoming plan began at that time. There’s been some uncertainty regarding what would happen to Unit 3, including talk among employees.

“There was almost a belief that [the deadline] could be changed,” Holt said. To keep the workers informed, some time ago he called a meeting to quell speculation. In front of the team, he pointed to the Federal Register.

“The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is proposing to approve a source-specific revision to the Wyoming State Implementation Plan (SIP) that provides an alternative to Best Available Retrofit Technology (BART) for Unit 3 at the Naughton Power Plant (“the SIP revision”) that is owned and operated by PacifiCorp,” the Register’s notice reads. Bottom line: Not burning coal “would provide greater reasonable progress toward natural visibility.”

“This is where it came from,” Holt told the employees. “That’s the reality. We have no option at this point.”

Workers took their medicine stoically, Holt said. “I don’t think it really shocked anybody.” Nevertheless, “there’s no one at this plant doing cartwheels that Unit 3 is closing.”

PacifiCorp and Rocky Mountain Power spokesman Eskelsen traced the long and twisting path his firm has traveled since it began generating electricity from hydro power in 1912. “This company has gone through a tremendous amount of technological change,” he said.

After WWII, with the proliferation of electrical appliances, the rush was on to build power plants. They popped up where coal was available, it being cheaper to transmit electricity than to haul the rock. “It was a very dependable and low-cost energy source,” he said. Often companies sited plants near small towns like Kemmerer.

Now PacifiCorp, owned by Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway, faces an “extremely dynamic” planning environment, Eskelsen said. It updates its integrated resource plan every two years, providing an outlook for a “least-cost/least-risk” energy portfolio.

“Mostly it’s a customer calculation,” Eskelsen said, but the plan also is guided by state standards and federal rules. Part of an 11-state Western grid that was originally built for redundancy, the power network today provides a wholesale market that weighs on power-purchase decisions.

“Natural gas prices have been a real game-changer,” Eskelsen said, and renewable energy sources are making an impact. Since the year 2000, the only new energy sources the company has purchased have been from solar or wind projects – mostly from third-party entrepreneurs.

Customer desires also steer the course. “Many do want renewable energy,” Eskelsen said.

For former Naughton Plant worker, Gary Cox, environmentalists are a key reason Unit 3 will not burn coal again. Cox a 20-year-plus Naughton veteran, now represents plant workers as a senior assistant business manager for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 57, based in Salt Lake City.

“It’s their newest unit,” Cox said of Unit 3. “It’s being shut down for environmental reasons. There’s a big movement in the country as far as anti-coal.”

The union testified in EPA haze hearings regarding pollution in the National Park System — part of the regional haze issue, he said. “IBEW also was involved when President Obama had his national energy plan,” he said, “making sure coal was considered a viable means of generation and that it should not be phased out.

“The companies are being bombarded by environmental groups and the EPA with new requirements,” Cox said, “and I believe there’s a fear by the companies they could go make these retrofits and government could come in and require them to close before they could recover those investments.”

Anti-coal sentiments have state-level implications, he said, with Oregon, for example, saying clearly “they do not want to pay for any investment recovery with a coal-fired plant.”

“They’re between a rock and a hard spot,” Cox said of PacifiCorp. There are no planned layoffs at the plant, Cox agreed, something the union strived for. In fact, workers have seen more overtime. But the Kemmerer community has lost jobs and at monthly union meetings, workers say they are concerned, Cox said.

“They feel outnumbered,” he said. “They feel they’re actually victims. What can they do?

“The government and the media in this country have put the word out on coal. It’s attacked from every angle yet it’s our most reliable and cheapest source.”

Cox was in Kemmerer during the boom times. Today at the town-center triangle park, “there’s very little going on.

“They even pulled out the stoplight,” he said. “It’s definitely shriveling up.”

President George H. W. Bush signed the amended Clean Air Act at the White House in 1990, starting the cascading events that culminate today at Naughton Plant’s Unit 3. Republicans and Democrats forged the Act, said Paul Hansen, a Jackson resident and newspaper columnist who was executive director of the Izaak Walton League and represented the sportsmen’s conservation group at the signing ceremony.

“This was people who believed our nation needed to clean up its air,” he said of the coalition that backed the act. As hunters and anglers, the Izaak Walton League was involved because of worries about acid rain.

“It stands as one of the smartest compromises we ever did,” Hansen said. “The benefits are well-documented in last 28 years.”

The nation uses twice as much electrical power as it did in 1990, there are now three times as many cars on the road “and the air is cleaner than when we passed the bill,” he said. The act has benefited crop yield and human health, curtailed building degradation, boosted water and air quality and reduced asthma in kids, Hansen said.

The best estimate is the act prevents 35,000 premature deaths annually, he said.

“I’m sorry to see jobs change,” Hansen said, “but jobs change all the time. Natural gas is both cheaper and cleaner. It’s totally logical, in my mind, that we are over time going to phase coal out. Given the trajectory of the cost of solar, this is going to do nothing but accelerate.”

Some Wyoming legislators seek to put the brakes on that acceleration. Sens. Dan Dockstader (R-Afton), Eli Bebout (R-Riverton) and Ogden Driskill (R-Devils Tower) co-sponsored Senate File 159—New opportunities for Wyoming coal fired generation.

An analysis of the bill by the Casper-Star Tribune describes the measure as one that would require companies to seek a buyer before shutting down facilities like Unit 3 at the Naughton Plant. Companies that don’t try to sell would face economic consequences. The bill would go into effect in 2022, so appears to have no bearing on Naughton Plant’s Unit 3.

Meantime Rocky Mountain Power and PacifiCorp have postponed the completion of their next integrated resource plan, which could address conversion of Unit 3 to natural gas. It was scheduled for this spring but now will be completed in the summer. As analysts crunch numbers and weigh options, work continues at Naughton.

Friday, Holt presided over a small ceremony that saw a half dozen assistant workers step into new positions. “Six graduated today,” he said. “They are officially no longer apprentices.”

 

WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.

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