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How drought threatens electricity producing, coal-fired power plants


Drought in the American West is forcing states to rethink how they use water for industry. That includes the energy sector and coal-fired power plants. Julia Simon reports from Wyoming.

JULIA SIMON, BYLINE: Driving through the sagebrush west of Cheyenne, the road curves upwards.

Just coming up the hill, you just see all of this steam.

Giant smokestacks shooting steam up into the sky. This is the Jim Bridger Coal Plant. It powers a million-plus homes all the way to Oregon using hot coal and a lot of water for...

DAVID ESKELSEN: The cooling cycle - that probably accounts for 80% to 90% of the water use at the plant.

SIMON: David Eskelsen, spokesperson for plant operator Rocky Mountain Power, shows me the reservoir, lined with rocks, some cottonwood trees, where the plant sucks up 16 million gallons each day. The plant recirculates the water.

ESKELSEN: But then it gets spent and evaporated. And so we need to replenish that with new water from the Green River.

SIMON: But there are questions over how long there will be new water. The Green River is a tributary of the rapidly shrinking Colorado River. Amidst a climate change-fueled drought, federal officials are telling states they've got to seriously cut how much of the Colorado River they use. As for the West's 30 coal plants, including Jim Bridger - their water is not locked in.

Here's Wyoming State Engineer, Brandon Gebhart.

BRANDON GEBHART: The priority dates of the Jim Bridger - they would be likely the first one shut off unless they were able to find a different source of water.

SIMON: Joe Smyth of the Energy and Policy Institute says the drought and potential water cuts pose a serious threat to the millions of customers who rely on these coal plants for power.

JOE SMYTH: If you don't have water to cool it, you can't run it, right? Like, it's not a minor risk. It is a very disruptive event.

SIMON: Earlier this year, New Mexico utility PNM told the Securities and Exchange Commission that their coal plants in the Navajo Nation could be forced to cut electricity generation because of the drought. But while utilities are alerting Wall Street about water shortages, for a Western coal plant like Jim Bridger, there's uncertainty about who's overseeing this risk on the ground.

John Burbidge is chief counsel at the utility regulator at the Wyoming Public Service Commission. He says they aren't tracking whether there's enough water to keep the power on.

JOHN BURBIDGE: No. I would say not. Really the expert on whether there's adequate water supply is going to be the state engineer. They're the ones who keep track of that.

SIMON: But State Engineer Gebhart tells NPR that while he's happy to help plant operators look for alternate water sources, it's not his role to make sure coal plants have enough water to operate. Jim Bridger doesn't plan to close until 2037. In the meantime, it's considering new technology to capture carbon emissions, according to regulatory filings by the utility. The new technology would use about 35% more water than the coal plant already uses. With the drought, some locals think it's time to move away from coal.

TONY VALDEZ: It's got to go. I mean, they have to go.

SIMON: Tony Valdez used to work in coal plants, including Jim Bridger. He's now the co-owner of a local marina on the Green River that's suffering because of the drought. The water issues of coal have him thinking about new energy.

VALDEZ: So why are we still pushing that [expletive] up in the air when we have wind; we have solar; we have all this stuff that does not impact water?

SIMON: And, he says, they don't cause emissions that fuel megadroughts.

For NPR News, I'm Julia Simon, Point of Rocks, Wyo.


Julia Simon
Julia Simon is the Climate Solutions reporter on NPR's Climate Desk. She covers the ways governments, businesses, scientists and everyday people are working to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. She also works to hold corporations, and others, accountable for greenwashing.