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Many utilities want natural gas to help in their transition from coal to green energy

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

In general, it is now cheaper to generate electricity with wind and solar energy than by burning coal, and it's been years since a major coal-fired power plant has been built in the U.S. That does not mean they are all being replaced with renewable energy. As KUNC's Rae Solomon reports, lots of utilities are using natural gas.

(SOUNDBITE OF MACHINE WHIRRING)

RAE SOLOMON, BYLINE: At the Rawhide power plant in Wellington, Colo., Brodie Griffin describes the heart of his work as a 16-story fire tornado.

BRODIE GRIFFIN: This is the boiler. And right on the other side of these walls, that's where that 2,400-degree flame is burning.

SOLOMON: The giant flame is fueled by massive amounts of coal.

GRIFFIN: At full load, we burn about 300,000 pounds per hour.

SOLOMON: All that heat turns water into high-pressure steam, which rotates a turbine, generating electricity that powers homes and businesses across northern Colorado. But things are changing. The utility says this vast coal-fired operation doesn't make economic sense anymore, and their customers are demanding cleaner energy. So the power company will be shutting down the plant in six years.

GRIFFIN: In the future, we need a different technology.

SOLOMON: But just which different technology will take over after coal's demise is a big and contentious question. Platte River Power Authority, the utility that owns the plant, is investing heavily in renewable energy, but also a side of climate warming pollution. The utility's post-coal blueprint calls for new plants that burn natural gas, a decidedly not carbon-free fossil fuel. That's troubling to Sue McFaddin.

SUE MCFADDIN: I was really shocked that they were going to build a gas-fired power plant.

SOLOMON: McFaddin is a Platte River customer who wants a cleaner grid. She and local environmental groups point to climate scientists' urgent warnings that we need to stop using fossil fuels and to the Biden administration's goal for a carbon-free grid by 2035. They call new natural gas plants an expensive waste of time and money.

MCFADDIN: I know there's far better solutions out there.

SOLOMON: But utilities still have legitimate concerns about the reliability of a grid powered exclusively by wind and solar, says Jacqueline Cochran with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

JAQUELIN COCHRAN: What a utility never wants to do is be out of power.

SOLOMON: Cochran says that solar and wind are generally great at meeting base loads, but...

COCHRAN: We have a mismatch in when renewable energy is generated versus when there's a demand for electricity.

SOLOMON: Cochran says new technologies like long-duration battery storage that solve for that mismatch are on the horizon. But they're not ready for prime time quite yet and they probably won't be until after the utility's deadline for shutting down the Rawhide coal plant, leaving a reliability gap that natural gas can easily fill. Mark Dyson says that's why lots of utilities are still eyeing new natural gas plants. He's with the Rocky Mountain Institute, a research and analysis nonprofit.

MARK DYSON: We see proposals for new investment in gas-fired power plants all over the country.

SOLOMON: Those totaled at least $100 billion nationwide, Dyson found in 2021. He says that's in spite of evidence that carbon-free energy is a better investment.

DYSON: That would save customers on the order of $20 billion, and it would avoid more than 800 million metric tons of CO2 over the project lifetimes of those proposed natural gas plants.

SOLOMON: Even so, the gas proposals keep coming.

(SOUNDBITE OF MACHINE WHIRRING)

SOLOMON: As he prepares to close the Rawhide coal plant, Brodie Griffin says the stakes of a reliable power supply are just too high to allow uncertainty.

GRIFFIN: We don't get to make bets in our industry. Our job is to keep the lights on, so this is a proven technology that we know we can count on in the near future.

SOLOMON: So for now, some version of the fire tornado, one that swaps out coal for natural gas, will likely keep burning into the clean energy future.

For NPR News, I'm Rae Solomon.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Rae Solomon
As newscast reporter I keep Northern Coloradans up to date on all the things they need to know NOW. Whatever’s floating through the zeitgeist at the moment, I’m on it.