Production at Utah plant begins in Colorado
BONANZA, Utah — When Mike Goddard opened a peekhole-size door and used a welder’s helmet to look inside a towering boiler at the Bonanza Power Plant, the 2,500-degree fire burning inside reminded him of some of the preaching the Lutheran heard during his youth.
But the plant’s maintenance superintendent wasn’t viewing the final resting place for certain souls. Rather, it’s one stage of an industrial process that begins with underground mining of coal just across the border in western Colorado and ends with inexpensive electricity for the customers of the Deseret Power Electric Cooperative.
The cooperative, based in South Jordan, Utah, has six member rural co-ops serving more than 45,000 customers based in Utah and surrounding states. These include the Moon Lake Electric Association, which has a service area extending into the Rangely region of northwestern Colorado.
Deseret owns 223 miles of transmission lines and 550 megawatts of power generation capacity. Of that capacity, 500 megawatts can be produced at Deseret, which is enough to serve the needs of 300,000 homes, and means Deseret is able to sell surplus power into the market.
The power plant has become integral to the economies of northeastern Utah and far northwestern Colorado. The plant employs some 100 people, with another 18 stationed there and doing work associated with substation, transmission and other facilities. A good number commute from the Vernal area to the north.
“The plant just plays a very important role in our economy,” said Alan Hutcheon, who in over 22 years of working there has worked his way up to a shift supervisor position.
In Colorado, Deseret’s Deserado Mine northeast of Rangely has 164 workers at the mine and related facilities including a dedicated, 37-mile railroad that delivers the mine’s entire production of coal, about 2 million tons a year, to the power plant. The mine’s workers are members of the United Mine Workers of America Union and live mostly in Rangely and Vernal.
Deserado is considered what’s called a “captive” mine, having just one customer. It’s joined at the hip with the power plant, opening in 1982 with the exclusive purpose of fueling the plant, which itself began operating a few years later.
“We don’t spend too much time in marketing,” said Al Hillard, the mine’s longtime manager.
Thanks to having a reliable customer with a need for a consistent supply of coal, “there hasn’t been a layoff here since 1995,” Hillard said.
The flip side for the mine would come if anything should happen that would affect the demand from the plant, as is feared could result from proposed new Environmental Protection Agency requirements. (See related story.)
It’s a tough time for coal mines to be looking for other customers, with electricity providers increasingly looking to natural gas as a fuel source due to booming domestic production and increasing federal pollution regulations pertaining to coal-fired plants. And in the case of the Deserado Mine, it’s 90 miles from the nearest railroad other than its own line to the plant, which poses a major transportation hurdle should it have to find a new market.
For now, the mine chugs along, with its underground longwall and continuous mining machines shearing away at deposits as much as 4.5 miles into the mine. They’re chasing a roughly horizontal coal seam that averages about 8.5 feet in height and runs as deep as 1,200 feet underground.
A conveyor belt system brings the coal to the surface, where rocks are separated from the coal, ash is removed in a prep plant and the clean coal is shipped by conveyor to the rail line that serves as an umbilical cord between mine and plant. A 44-car train owned by Deseret hauls 5,200 tons of product on average twice a day to the plant, using engines powered not by diesel but by a 50,000-volt line using power from the plant.
“We’re one of our own best customers,” Hillard said.
The coal leaves a remotely located site on Bureau of Land Management land in Colorado and arrives at a perhaps even more remote site in northeastern Utah, in a landscape marked by colorful badlands and the pumpjacks of oil wells. Wildlife are drawn to the plant; last week pronghorn cooled themselves beneath the shade of conveyor belts and wild horses seemed only slightly bothered by vehicle traffic.
At the plant, coal turns water to steam to power a turbine that rotates 3,600 times per minute.
Deseret uses a mixture of crushed limestone and water in a scrubber to remove about 95 percent of sulfur dioxide from its emissions, and what’s called a baghouse removes about 99 percent of particulate matter emissions. Sixteen cooling towers can shed as much as 5,000 gallons a minute of water on a hot August day, but most of the water the plant uses continues to circulate through the system as it is heated and cooled during the power generation process.
Peter Brixius, manager of the town of Rangely, said electricity rates in that area are some of the lowest in Colorado. Deseret says that when adjusted for inflation, its members pay less for electricity now than they did in 1985.
It produces electricity cheaply because it’s a nonprofit cooperative that keeps any profits within the member system, and because of its vertical integration where it owns not just the plant but the coal mine and railroad connecting the two. It has long federal leases on coal and a stable coal price, and even owns the limestone lease north of Vernal where a contractor mines the product used at the plant.
With a newly approved BLM lease, the Deserado Mine estimates it has enough coal to keep mining until 2032. As for what happens at the mine beyond that, “I guess a lot depends on how the electricity generation business goes in the next 20 years — if there’s still demand for coal,” Hillard said.