Encased in thick concrete and metal, four massive fires burn every day and every night at the Dave Johnston Power Plant east of Glenrock. Beneath the coal fires, heavy steel crushers pulverize fist-sized chunks of coal from the Powder River Basin into the fine powder that burns hot and long. It’s a meticulous operation with a simple purpose: Boil water for steam.
Hour by hour, Wyoming coal feeds the fires that ultimately create power for a light switch flicked on many miles away. Dave Johnston has poured millions into complying with environmental regulations to reduce emissions like mercury, and with a nearby source of cheap fuel, it’s not ready to retire.
Some say the writing is on the wall for coal, the black rock that for many years provided power plants like Dave Johnston with reliable fuel. While locals counter by saying that the coal industry will survive at a new normal, and economists have said Wyoming coal mining will be the last to go down, the Cowboy State doesn’t dictate the electricity market; it simply provides the material.
And many power plants that buy the Powder River Basin material are closing. The small, older plants slated to retire are worrisome enough, but news of large plants considering closure is a somewhat surprising change in direction being watched closely by economists, coal companies and groups that would like to see a transition to renewable fuels.
“The challenges are big, and it’s a question of uncertainty out there for the Wyoming coal industry,” said Travis Deti, executive director of the Wyoming Mining Association. “With the closures, you are obviously losing clients.”
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