Bill would regulate power grid for reliability

CASPER — A new piece of legislation could give coal-fired power plants a lifeline.

Filed on Friday in Wyoming’s Legislature, House Bill 155 would require state regulators to consider how a coal or natural gas power plant closure could affect the reliability of the power grid before approving its retirement.

Prior to giving a utility a green light to retire an aging power plant unit, the Wyoming Public Service Commission — the state agency regulating certain utilities in Wyoming — would have to consider if the closure would increase the risk of power outages.

“Before authorizing or approving the closure of an electric generation facility as proposed in a rate case, integrated resource plan or other submission to the commission, the commission shall consider the effect on available reliable, dispatchable electricity to Wyoming customers and on a nationwide basis,” the bill states.

Under the proposed bill, utilities would also be held liable for damages or injuries caused by power outage, under certain circumstances.

The bill aims to ensure Wyoming’s electrical grid maintains sufficient “baseload power,” or a source of continuously available electricity supply, especially as companies invest in more and more renewable energy.

Rep. Chuck Gray, R-Casper, sponsored the bill. House Corporations Committee Chair Dan Zwonitzer, R-Cheyenne, is a co-sponsor.

“The radical Left is attempting to destroy our Wyoming way of life by cancelling fossil fuels,” Gray said in a written statement. “Reliability on the grid would be destroyed by the radical Left’s actions. A reliable energy grid heats our homes and powers our businesses. (House Bill) 155 is designed to stop the radical Left from doing to Wyoming what they’ve already done to Texas, Colorado and California. We saw in Texas what will happen if the radical Left wins on this issue.”

Opponents of the bill said it could mean keeping coal-fired power plants in operation longer than makes fiscal sense for ratepayers.

“Reading between the lines, this bill is to stop coal plant retirements and closures under the guise of reliability,” said Shannon Anderson, a staff attorney for the Powder River Basin Resource Council, a conservation group representing landowners. “Really, what we see from the bill is it would cause analysis-paralysis and be another layer of bureaucracy for a utility to have to go through to be able to retire a coal plant that is no longer economic for customers and losing customer money to operate.”

Utilities across the country have started retiring their coal fleets in favor of wind or solar energy to save ratepayers money. But critics of renewable energy have long argued the source of electricity is still not dependable enough.

The widespread blackouts experienced across Texas due to extreme weather events last month have turned significant attention to the topic of grid reliability, and added fuel to the fire for renewable energy opponents.

However, no fuel source is perfect and both fossil fuel and renewable sources of electricity can contribute to outages, Anderson said.

For instance, a portion of the Texas’ wind turbines did ice up. But failures at coal, natural gas and nuclear plants also contributed to the sweeping outages across Texas’ grid. In fact, about twice as much power was lost from coal, natural gas and nuclear generators than wind and solar, according to the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, the state’s primary grid operator.

Another piece of legislation filed on Sunday — House Bill 166 — could also keep coal-fired power plants open longer. The bill, sponsored by Steve Harshman, R-Casper, would require the Public Service Commission to take several additional steps before approving a coal unit retirement, including providing proof such a retirement makes sense both in terms of cost and reliability.

Wyoming is the nation's leading producer of coal. Over 90 percent of coal mined here is exported beyond the state's boundaries.