Wyoming regulators deemed a utility’s plan for providing power to Wyoming ratepayers deficient on Thursday, when announcing the results of an investigation.
The Public Service Commission’s case against PacifiCorp, the state’s largest utility, began nearly one year ago, after the company announced it would invest in renewable energy and close down several coal-fired power plants to allegedly save customers money down the road.
Wyoming’s governor, lawmakers and industry groups balked at the idea of sunsetting the state’s top economic engines. So on Nov. 13, the state launched an investigation into PacifiCorp’s 2019 integrated resource plan – a document outlining the utility’s energy plans in its six-state service territory for the next two decades.
The commission announced the findings of its investigation on Thursday during public deliberations and issued several directives for the company to follow when producing another plan next year.
According to remarks provided by Chairwoman Kara Fornstrom, PacifiCorp’s plan failed to consider the “devastating” local and state economic consequences of retiring some of its coal fleet early.
Among several other directives, Fornstom called on the utility to include an “economic impact assessment” in future plans. This analysis would provide the commission with additional details on the socioeconomic impacts the utility’s plans could have on Wyoming workers and families.
Of particular note, the commission also urged PacifiCorp to “make a more meaningful effort” when evaluating the potential merits of carbon capture, sequestration and utilization technology.
PacifiCorp has long maintained the integrity of its 2019 integrated resource plan.
“We appreciated the commission’s comments on the PacifiCorp Integrated Resource Plan (IRP) this week,” a spokesman for PacifiCorp said in a written statement following the decision. “Our stakeholder process for the IRP is open to all interested stakeholders and we make every effort to be inclusive and responsive to all points of view in the development of the IRP. We will need some time to review the commission’s written determinations before we comment in detail.”
Commissioners also took time during Thursday’s deliberations to defend the investigation itself. The regulatory body is tasked with keeping the state’s public utilities in check. It ensures utility companies follow their strict mandate of keeping ratepayers’ costs low and power reliable.
“Given the tremendous changes resulting from the selected preferred portfolios generation mix and the potential effect on Wyoming consumers, as well as the dramatic and devastating impacts to Wyoming communities, an investigation was our best tool to examine whether Rocky Mountain Power’s (the branch of PacifiCorp operating in Wyoming) preferred portfolio represents the most reliable, least-cost, least-risk option,” said Mary Throne, deputy chairwoman of the commission.
“Initiating the investigation was well within our broad authority within our statutes, and really necessary, as I said, given the dramatic change,” Throne added.
Under the utility’s controversial plan issued last year, two-thirds of PacifiCorp’s national coal fleet will be retired by 2030, including units at Naughton in Kemmerer, Jim Bridger near Rock Springs and Dave Johnston in Glenrock. In turn, the company would invest in the expansion of renewable energy, battery storage and transmission infrastructure. But shuttering several of the state’s coal plants would be catastrophic for communities deeply dependent on the facilities for jobs and economic activity, critics of the plan said.
When a utility files an integrated resource plan, the commission often accepts it after scrutinizing it during a public comment period. But the commission does have the authority to instigate an investigation or hold a contested case proceeding, and it has done so in the past. Over the course of several months, the commission held multiple technical conferences and hearings to investigate the integrity of PacifiCorp’s plan.
The commission did not render a final decision on whether it would accept PacifiCorp’s 2019 integrated resource plan and will announce it at a future hearing.
In addition to defending the basis for the investigation, Fornstrom also took time to address “the criticism” from “both pleadings and the press” that the commission received for initiating the investigative proceedings in the first place.
It’s true. There has been substantial coverage stirred by this investigation.
Skeptics of the investigation bemoaned the substantial resources and time the rigorous inquiry required. Some said it would lead the commission astray from its decades-old mission. Others worried the commission’s directives could end up costing ratepayers more later on (for instance, if it required PacifiCorp to slow down its investment in renewable energy in favor of keeping Wyoming coal plants running with carbon capture). Defenders of the investigation had worthy concerns too: PacifiCorp had a responsibility to consider the impacts its plan had on communities who have kept the coal plants running for generations, they said.
In my eyes, the heated debate generated throughout this extended investigative process was warranted and vital, especially given the crossroads Wyoming sits at. As the state grapples with how to adapt to the new ways the nation uses power, ample time for residents’ and stakeholders’ comments, not to mention press coverage, are vital components of this public process. In the coming weeks, I will be reporting more on the details of the order, and what it could mean for the state.
If nothing else, this debate can ensure both state regulators and public utilities are best serving ratepayers, and most importantly, the next generation of Wyomingites inheriting the decisions we make today.
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