The future of coal: How will areas of rural Utah be affected?

Nov 9, 2021, 7:36 PM | Updated: Sep 5, 2022, 12:11 am

Large coal piles sit in front of PacifiCorps, Hunter, 1,320 megawatt coal fired power plant on June...

FILE Large coal piles sits in front of PacifiCorps, Hunter, 1,320 megawatt coal fired power plant on June 19, 2019 in Castle Dale, Utah. (George Frey/Getty Images)

(George Frey/Getty Images)

SALT LAKE CITY — When 40 nations signed a pledge to phase out the use of coal at an international climate conference this month in Scotland, the United States was not among them. And while the reasons remain to be seen, it can be seen as good news to several counties in rural Utah and probably to Utahns themselves. Because each year, according to the US Energy Information Association, 61% of the electricity used by Utahns is produced by coal.

The national average is 20%.

That 61% number is a little misleading according to Rocky Mountain Power, which provides power to more than 1.2 million customers in Utah, Wyoming, and Idaho.

“It’s true from a production standpoint,” said David S. Wilson from Rocky Mountain Power, “but you have to remember that the Energy Information Administration figure includes IPP, and that’s called fueled plant and most of that power goes to California.”

Wilson joined KSL NewsRadio host Davie Noriega on the program Dave and Dujanovic this week.


The more accurate number is that 48% of the electricity used by Utahns is powered by coal. And that’s still nearly 30% more than the national average.

And that number is decreasing year by year as more people switch to using renewable energy sources like wind, solar, and even battery storage.

“Our long-range planning shows about the next 10 years it (Utah’s coal-powered electricity consumption) will decrease to about 11%,” Wilson said. Rocky Mountain Power expects a return to its roots with the creation of modern hydroelectric pumped electricity storage. And he said nuclear power is an option, too.

Coal is one of the dominoes that generates electric power in the United States. A  power plant burns the coal, the heat turns water into steam which cranks a turbine producing electricity.

Rural Utahns in coal country

Whether coal is important to Utah and Utahns can be answered by looking to the State Capitol where, in 1991, lawmakers declared that coal would be designated as the “state rock.”

The Utah Geological Survey reports that Utahns were mining for coal as early as the 1850s. And while it is no longer a primary source for fueling trains or heating homes, coal still brings home the bacon for Utah. In 2013, Utah mines produced 17 million tons of coal at a value of nearly $580 million.

There are people behind those numbers. Communities. Tradition. Utahns.  How will they be impacted by changing power needs?

In rural Utah, it’s business as usual

“We’ve got to look at other options,” said the mayor of Castle Dale, Utah, Danny Van Wagoner. “And we can’t just rely on just one economy for our community.”

Castle Dale, Utah is a very small town in Emery County and is the seat of Emery County government. The Utah history encyclopedia describes Castle Dale as a community that has long been based on farming and livestock and coal mining.

“Right now,” Van Wagoner said, “(coal) is the major driver for jobs, coal in the power plants in our county.”

And at least in Emery County, it doesn’t look like coal jobs are going away.

“They’re looking for new employees all the time, there’s advertisements out,” Van Wagoner said. “There’s a status quo that they need to make.”

But at the same time, Castle Dale officials are looking to the future. Part of their future, they believe, is the same that’s true for many Utah communities and counties – tourism.

And molten salt. 

“We have what we call the San Rafael Energy Research Center,” said Van Wagoner. “And they’re right now doing research on the molten salt, which is a high temperature, low pressure, steam and it runs on nuclear reactors.

“So they’re moving forward with that and probably getting ready to start sometime in the future, a 30-megawatt little thorium reactor,” (which is a nuclear reactor fueled by thorium instead of uranium.)

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The future of coal: How will areas of rural Utah be affected?