A green transformation at Delta’s power plant looks promising for the climate, but uncertain for the community
The Intermountain Power Plant has been one of the defining landmarks in Millard County since it first came online in 1986.
On a cold day, giant plumes of steam are visible for miles in every direction. It’s economic impact has been just as vast, sustaining close to 400 jobs and millions of dollars in state and local tax revenue.
For Lynn Thomas, the plant has also been something like a second family.
“We’ve been together forever it seems like,” Thomas said during a recent tour of the plant. “I mean when you work with the same people for over 30 years, try to imagine that.”
Thomas is the assistant superintendent of the plant, overseeing day-to-day operations. He got his first job here in 1985, a year after graduating from high school.
He followed in his older brother’s footsteps, who was hired just a few years before him as construction on the plant was ramping up. That’s not uncommon as lots of siblings work there. So do fathers and sons.
“I was told all growing up, you’re not going to work out there,” said Taylor Shipley, a control room operator whose father also works at the plant. “But here I am.”
At 30 years old, Shipley is part of a younger generation at IPP. He’s been working at the plant for five years now, starting out as a laborer and working his way up the ranks.
Both Shipley and Thomas are now facing an uncertain future.
The plant is scheduled to close in 2025. It will be replaced with a hybrid-natural gas and hydrogen plant and ultimately run completely on green hydrogen by 2045.
The massive plant creates enough electricity to power 1.5 million homes, but nearly all of them are in Southern California. Los Angeles and a handful of nearby cities have consumed about 98% of the power IPP has generated since its inception.
It was conceived as a partnership between energy leaders in Utah and California in the 1970s, said IPP spokesman John Ward.
In Utah, people were eager to develop the natural resources available to spur economic development. Meanwhile, California’s exponential growth demanded more and more energy.
“There was a deal to do,” Ward said.
Several decades later, however, market forces and mounting urgency to act on climate change are driving the end of an era, even though the plant is capable of running for many more years.
In 2006, California passed a law that essentially banned the use of coal power. Ward said the Utah owners went looking for someone else who could buy the power, but came up empty-handed.
That left IPP operators with a tough choice: close down or adapt.
“The fact of the matter is somebody needs to buy the energy,” Ward said. “And so it became apparent that the choice was not between coal and renewables. The choice was between nothing and renewables.”
All the ingredients
Ward said IPP had too much going for it to walk away: a skilled workforce, a transmission line that extends almost 500 miles to California and, by sheer luck, it’s sitting on top of massive underground salt caverns.
They offer enormous potential to tackle one of the primary challenges associated with the shift from fossil fuels to renewable energy — storage. As more renewable, intermittent energy sources like solar and wind come online, some worry the electrical grid is at increased risk of blackouts.
But with a hydrogen-fueled plant and nearby salt caverns to store it in, the Intermountain Power Agency hopes it could be the center of a major green energy innovation.
“It’s long-term renewable energy storage,” Ward said. “We can make green hydrogen in the spring and fall months, where there’s lots of extra wind and solar to make that hydrogen with and bring it back out on a hot day in the summer or a cold day in the winter.”
It’s a promising development in the fight against climate change. Electricity created from hydrogen has no byproducts other than water. And if the electrolysis process to create the hydrogen is done using renewable energy sources, Ward said the entire operation is emissions-free.
Ward said while the technology they’ll be using isn’t new, the project is unique in that all of the elements to deploy it at a utility scale already exist in Delta. Several salt caverns are already being used to store natural gas and are in the process of converting to hydrogen.
The operation has attracted the attention of multinational corporations like Mitsubishi and Chevron. Ward said it could also bring in outside industries like transportation and manufacturing looking to cash in on the green hydrogen revolution.
“We're not excited to move away from coal, but we are excited to be able to replace that with something that puts Utah on the world stage and creates an industry that can continue to create an economic livelihood for Utahns for many decades more to come,” Ward said.
The transition won’t be fully green, however, for several years. The coal plant will be operating for another four years, continuing to spew carbon into the air and leaching harmful chemicals into nearby groundwater.
When the new plant opens, it will mostly run on natural gas, a cleaner but still dirty fuel that emits about half the carbon that coal plants do.
And while there is lots of potential for future economic development, the plant itself will have a much smaller impact. A report from the Utah Foundation estimates there will be around 120 jobs at the new plant — about a third of what’s currently there. It will also power slightly less than half of the homes it supports now.
If people like Thomas want to work at the new plant, it’ll require some retraining. He said that wouldn’t be a huge challenge. The real question for him is if he wants to.
“That’s what I haven’t decided yet,” he said. “I don’t know if I want to be here to see it [torn] down. So, yeah, it’s pretty tough.”
At 59, he said he could take an early retirement. He’s been wanting to do some traveling with his wife. They’re thinking Scotland might be their first stop.