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Coal Power Retirement

Steam rises from the huge boiler units at the Jim Bridger Power Plant east of Rock Springs, Wyo. A utility company is considering early retirement for one Wyoming coal-fired power plant and part of another to keep down costs.

CHEYENNE, Wyo. | One Wyoming coal-fired power plant and part of another could face early retirement as part of ongoing efforts to keep down costs for electricity customers, PacifiCorp said Thursday.

The announcement by the Portland, Oregon-based electric utility came as it studies the potential savings of retiring coal-fired generating units as early as 2022.

Four coal-fired units in Wyoming have emerged as leading candidates. Two are located at the Naughton plant outside Kemmerer and two at the Jim Bridger plant outside Rock Springs.

PacifiCorp shut down one of Naughton's three units in January. Closing the other two could end operations, though PacifiCorp may keep one unit running after converting it to burn natural gas.

The company should have a better idea about the changes when it releases a "preferred portfolio" of power generation as part of a biennial planning document in August, PacifiCorp spokesman David Eskelsen said.

"The economics of coal is challenged to a significant degree by low-priced natural gas and increasingly inexpensive wind and solar," Eskelsen said. "The challenge for a utility is to take advantage of the lowest-priced options but do it in a way that maintains reliability."

The cost of maintenance and abiding by environmental regulations also factor into closure decisions, Eskelsen said.

The announcement spotlights ongoing problems for the coal industry in Wyoming, the top coal-producing state in the nation, and for one coal company in particular.

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Englewood, Colorado-based Westmoreland Coal, which recently emerged from bankruptcy, has been seeking to sell its Kemmerer mine which supplies coal solely to the nearby Naughton plant.

"There's a certain amount of coal inventory we keep near the plant. We're doing a pretty intricate balancing act against the issues surrounding Westmoreland and the Kemmerer mine," Eskelsen said.

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Should PacifiCorp close Naughton, a state law that takes effect July 1 would require the company to try to sell the power plant before decommissioning it.

The Naughton units date back to the 1960s and the Jim Bridger units to the mid-1970s.

In all, PacifiCorp has been considering early retirement of units at five of its 10 coal-fired power plants.

Meanwhile, it plans to significantly increase the amount of electricity it generates from wind turbines and solar farms.

PacifiCorp has 1.9 million customers. Subsidiary Pacific Power provides electricity in areas of California, Oregon and Washington; subsidiary Rocky Mountain Power in Idaho, Utah and Wyoming.

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