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DELTA — One of the nation's largest power plants is on the verge of a momentous change of direction.
Pushed by the science and politics of climate change, Utah's Intermountain Power Project will likely hitch its future to natural gas instead of coal.
For three decades, the plant has had a huge appetite for coal. It comes in by rail — 100 rail-cars a day — 100 tons of coal per carload. The carbon-rich fuel fires boilers that drive turbines generating 1,800 megawatts of electricity.
Last year alone IPP burned 5 million tons of coal.
But coal may be on its way out. IPP's participants are on the verge of approving a gigantic billion-dollar makeover involving new power units fueled by natural gas instead of coal.
"We're hoping that this year we'll get things wrapped up and the scope of that project fully put together," said John Ward, spokesman for the Intermountain Power Agency.
If it happens over the next decade or so, the change of direction at IPP will be greeted with enthusiasm by many environmental groups.
"It is a good thing," said Tim Wagner of the Sierra Club. "The less coal we burn, the better it is, not only for our air quality but for the climate."
The less coal we burn, the better it is, not only for our air quality but for the climate.
–Tim Wagner, Sierra Club
Ironically, the long-range and very expensive decision is being driven by climate change issues in California rather than by the 23 Utah towns and cities that actually own IPP.
Ever since the plant first fired-up in the mid-1980s, nearly all the electricity from IPP has been sent to Los Angeles and five other cities in California, a state where climate change is taken seriously and where state regulations are pushing back against coal.
"The six California utilities, who have purchased more than 99 percent of the power over the life of this project, are prohibited from continuing to take coal power after the current purchase agreements expire in 2027," Ward explained.
Only a few years ago, IPP was seriously considering a big expansion of coal operations, so the change of direction might not be happening without a big shove from California.
"I don't think so," Wagner said. "I think there's such a strong allegiance to dirty energy and fossil fuel in (Utah) by some of our leaders. They see renewable energy as possibly a threat to that business model. And that's really unfortunate because that's where the future lies."
IPP seems to be re-positioning itself for that new energy future.
"The project is becoming a hub for other energy development here in central Utah," Ward said. "We have rail access, we have highway access, we have water. ... Everything is already here that makes it attractive for energy development."
IPP infrastructure already serves as an electronic pathway to the national energy grid for a big wind farm near Milford. A 300 megawatt solar energy farm is in the works less than a mile from IPP. Also, across the highway, giant salt caverns are being mined by Magnum Development to provide underground storage space for energy-related products.
Magnum eventually hopes to build caverns that would be used to "store" electricity. When extra electricity is available from solar or wind farms, it could be used to pump compressed air into the ground. When released later, the compressed air would generate electricity by pushing turbines on its way out of the ground.
Although a decision to build natural-gas units at IPP in coming years now seems nearly certain, no decisions have been made yet on whether to sell or dismantle the coal-fired units. Without customers in California, though, and with tougher federal pollution controls coming down the line, coal's future at IPP looks questionable in coming decades.