The Bonanza power plant near Vernal calls for continuing to burn coal with new pollution controls

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The nonprofit cooperative that supplies electricity to most of rural Utah has asked state regulators to allow it to upgrade the Bonanza power plant near Vernal so that it can continue burning coal for at least another decade.

Deseret Power, the nonprofit cooperative that owns Bonanza, has filed with the Utah Public Service Commission for approval to equip the 500-megawatt power plant with selective catalytic reduction (SCR) technology so it can continue operating beyond 2030 . Bonanza provides electricity to rural electric cooperatives in Utah, Nevada, Arizona and Colorado.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

The facility is operated under a 2015 settlement agreement. Two environmental groups — Wild Earth Guardians and the Sierra Club — have challenged the EPA's air quality permit for the facility. The resulting agreement allowed Deseret to burn only 20 million tons of coal and then either shut down the plant or install SCR, which cost tens of millions of dollars.

At the time, it was assumed that Deseret would close the plant rather than invest in expensive pollution control equipment. But the demand for electricity is increasing, as are the costs and time required to purchase and connect new energy sources.

Bonanza is vertically integrated. Deseret Power also owns the power plant's coal supply, the Deserado coal mine 35 miles away in western Colorado, and owns an electrified rail line that carries the coal from the mine to the power plant. Deseret Power has no connection to the LDS Church.

12 million tons more

The SCR Project “will enable Deseret to fully exploit and utilize all remaining economically recoverable coal reserves under the current federal leases of the Deserado Mine, thereby providing Deseret and its members with an additional 12 million tons of competitively priced coal.” ( above the 20 million ton limit),” Deseret’s PSC filing states. “Combined with the remaining balance of permitted coal, the existing leased reserves remaining in the Deserado Reserves will sustain continued Bonanza operations at approximately current levels through at least 2041 or 2042.”

Deseret officials declined to answer questions from The Tribune.

Deseret tells the PSC that the application will be “unopposed and uncontested and should be addressed through an “informal adjudication.”

The Civil Service Commission is accepting public comment on the filing until May 20.

Sierra Club spokeswoman Amy Dominguez asked if the project had no opposition.

“A more prudent course of action would be for the company to replace Bonanza with new clean energy that will be more affordable thanks to federal incentives under the Inflation Reduction Act and Utah’s incredible solar resources.”

“It is not possible for Deseret to know whether the project is uncontested and uncontested without allowing the public to comment,” she added. “As for Sierra Club, under the terms of a prior settlement agreement, we are unable to formally challenge the application to the Commission. Although Sierra Club cannot submit written comments to the Commission, we will continue to carefully review the application and provide a public analysis.”

Wild Earth Guardians declined to comment on Deseret's filing.

Satisfies “Good Neighbor”

The selective catalytic reduction significantly reduces NOx emissions, which are a precursor to ozone formation. With the addition of SCR, Bonanza's emissions would be low enough to comply with the federal Ozone Transport Rule (OTR). This so-called “good neighbor” rule requires power plants to keep NOx emissions low enough so that they don’t increase ozone levels in other states.

But the Ozone Transport Rule (OTR) is currently unenforced while the Supreme Court weighs whether the rule is a legitimate regulation or an overreach by the federal Environmental Protection Agency without appropriate congressional approval.

“The addition of SCR allows Bonanza Unit 1 to operate at levels that would allow operation even below the OTR with reasonably manageable costs associated with the compliance strategy to achieve the required emissions limits,” the filing said. “…The SCR provides the best probability currently available to enable Bonanza Unit 1 to meet these and other possible initiatives as part of a sensible, responsible, short- and medium-term compliance strategy.”

Deseret also noted that Bonanza is located in a federally designated Ozone Non-Area. The Uinta Basin, where most of Utah's oil and gas production occurs, has had elevated ozone levels for years despite its small population.

“Reducing NOx emissions in the non-attainment area in which Bonanza is located can provide significant benefits to the community and to potential future permit applications,” the filing says, noting that it could help Deseret to obtain EPA approval for a separate 51-megawatt facility to construct a natural gas-fired facility at the site to be used for “peak periods” when demand exceeds production from Bonanza and other sources. Similar natural gas peaking capacity was added in 2022.

Deseret also gets power from hydroelectric projects on the Colorado River, the Hunter Power Plant in Emery County and the Intermountain Power Project, which will switch from coal to natural gas next year and later to hydrogen. Additionally, some solar capacity was added near Bonanza.

No climate benefit

But SCR does nothing to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide released when coal is burned, and carbon dioxide is the biggest contributor to climate change. Coal is considered the least climate-friendly fossil fuel because burning it releases more carbon dioxide than oil or natural gas. In 2022, coal accounted for 20% of U.S. electricity generation, but 55% of carbon dioxide came from power plants.

In the filing, Deseret acknowledged that continuing coal production carries risks if future regulators limit coal burning or add additional costs such as a carbon fee or tax, but considers that risk to be low.

“The future legal and regulatory framework for the continued operation of Bonanza Block 1, particularly potential future initiatives to further restrict or impose significant requirements on coal-fired power generation, is an unavoidable element that must be considered for the operational and financial success of the block . “Project,” the submission states. “Based on its economic analysis, Deseret is confident that the SCR will provide sufficient additional generating capacity utilizing the existing proven leased coal reserves at the Deserado Mine and its confidence in the likelihood of a positive return on this investment is considered extremely high.” .”

Deseret's request comes less than a month after Rocky Mountain Power, Utah's largest utility, reversed its decision to close its coal-fired power plants in Emery County by 2032 and replace them with renewable energy sources, battery storage and small nuclear plants. Instead, Rocky Mountain announced on April 1 that it would continue to burn coal at its power plants until the plants are initially retired in 2036 and 2042.

Meanwhile, Utah's largest coal-fired power plant, the Intermountain Power Project near Delta, is scheduled to close next year as a new natural gas/hydrogen plant begins operation. But Utah lawmakers passed a bill earlier this year that would force IPP owners to revise their air quality permit to keep half of the coal plant open in the hopes that someone, perhaps even the state of Utah, will approve it keeps going.

Jeremy Nichols, senior attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity, said his organization would comment. “Unfortunately, this actually appears to reflect efforts by the Utah coal industry to simply force ratepayers and taxpayers to pay for expensive coal and continue to pocket profits.”

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Anna Harden

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