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Solar Energy

Solar arrays line the desert floor at the 179 megawatt Switch Station 1 and 2 solar projects on Dec. 11, 2017, north of Las Vegas. Fossil Solar has proposed to put a solar farm outside Kemmerer, Wyo.

A utility-scale solar farm has been proposed in Wyoming, just next door to the coal-fired power plant that shuttered one of its three coal-burning units Wednesday.

Fossil Solar LLC has proposed a 63-megawatt facility outside the town of Kemmerer, with plans to connect that power to the network of transmission serving PacifiCorp’s 56-year-old coal plant, Naughton.

Kemmerer sits at the crossroads of a changing energy landscape in Wyoming. The community has produced coal for more than 100 years, via the Kemmerer coal mine, but faces uncertainty regarding the future of both the mine -- whose owner is in bankruptcy -- and the power plant, which could close as early as 2029. 

The solar farm is a fraction of the powerhouse at Naughton. The company chose to shut down the one coal unit rather than spend money to update it for environmental regulations curbing haze. The unit provided up to 280 net megawatts of the plant’s total 700-megawatt output.

The solar farm would have a net production capacity of 58 megawatts, depending on sunshine.

Asked whether the proposed solar farm near Kemmerer could help offset generation losses at the Naughton Power plant, a spokesman for Rocky Mountain Power said he was uncertain how the small facility would fit into the larger, long-term operation of the company’s fleet of power plants and renewable sources.

Fossil Solar registered in the state of Wyoming in late January. It is a subsidiary of Strata Solar, a North Carolina-based firm that facilitates development of solar energy projects. Strata officials did not respond to questions by press time.

Rocky Mountain Power confirmed that Fossil Solar had begun the process for a contract by submitting a request for price estimates from the utility.

Due to its size, Fossil Solar’s proposed farm would qualify for a federal guarantee obligating Rocky Mountain Power to buy Fossil’s energy via a 20-year contract. The price Rocky Mountain Power would agree to pay Fossil Solar for its solar power would not be public, but it would be verified by Wyoming regulators and by law must be equal or less than the cost the utility would incur by generating that energy from its own resources.

The source of power for utilities has become a contentious issue with renewables sometimes pitted against traditional power producers. Rocky Mountain Power’s parent company, PacifiCorp, has a diverse energy portfolio of wind, solar, hydro and natural gas across six states, but about half of its energy comes from its coal fleet.

Not all of its customers support that mix.

Officials from the company warned Wyoming lawmakers of Rocky Mountain Power’s difficult position in a public meeting last year, with Wyoming rate payers at risk of taking on the added cost of keeping coal burning when other states opt out. In addition to customer preference pressuring the utility, coal is being left behind by cheaper fuel sources like natural gas and increasingly renewables.

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Wind is now the cheapest source of new generation. In some cases, it is cheaper to build a wind farm than continue operating an existing coal plant, according to a study last year from the international asset management firm Lazard Ltd.

Wyoming has a vested interest in whether a utility burns coal or not as the largest producer of coal in the United States.

Changing economics for coal, wind and solar power in the U.S. threaten traditional plants like Naughton but also coal mines, like the Kemmerer coal mine that sells its coal to Naughton.

Kemmerer’s owner, Westmoreland, which operates coal mines across the West and into Canada, filed for bankruptcy in October, faulting the weakening market for thermal coal. The sale of the coal mine, which employs about 300 workers in the rural area, to unnamed buyers is proposed for February. 

The solar farm by Fossil Solar is not the first solar development aimed to harness Wyoming’s sunny days. 

A developer began construction on the first utility-scale solar farm in Wyoming last year, the 80-megawatt Sweetwater Solar project near Green River. A second developer, Sage Solar, has obtained a power purchase agreement with Rocky Mountain Power for a 56-megawatt farm with operations slated to begin later this year.

By comparison, installed wind capacity in Wyoming is a little more than 1,400 megawatts with another 3,000 megawatts under construction. 

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