Hydrogen Breathes New (Cleaner) Life Into Utah Coal Plant

Published On
Sep 26, 2022

In a first-of-its-kind transformation, Utah’s Intermountain Power Plant will begin to transition away from coal to hydrogen production, by way of natural gas as a stepping stone.

First opened in 1973, Intermountain was slated for decommission by 2025, largely because Los Angeles, 600 miles away and the plant’s biggest customer, elected to obtain energy from cleaner sources.

As recently as 2018, Intermountain provided one-fifth of Los Angeles’ electricity. More than 90% of the demand for domestic coal comes from the electric power industry; however, the G7 countries have agreed to end support for unabated coal-fired power in an effort to phase out this polluting, non-renewable energy source.

Since its peak in 2007, coal production in the United States has steadily declined in response to decreased demand that is largely due to environmental concerns. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), coal consumption by the electric power sector declined from 678,554 short tons in 2016 to 435,827 short tons in 2020, with a slight rise to 501,427 short tons in 2021.

Since 2010, 289 coal plants—which made up 40% of the country’s coal power capacity—have closed, leaving only 241 still open. As gas plant closures accelerate, 51 gigawatts (GW) of coal power is expected to go offline between 2022 and 2027, according to an S&P Global Market Intelligence analysis, with another 23 GW expected to be retired by 2028. One reason for the rush stems from the Environmental Protection Agency’s Effluent Limitation Guidelines rule that regulates coal ash and toxic metals in wastewater. Coal-fired plants must comply by Dec. 31, 2028.

Rather than merely shut down the plant and let it become an eyesore, Intermountain Power Agency spokesperson John Ward said a happy “geologic coincidence” will allow this plant to convert to producing hydrogen, a clean fuel source that does not release greenhouse gases, through electrolysis. Instead, hydrogen power production releases water.

The plant just happens to sit atop the only salt dome in the West of sufficient size and quality capable of supporting a hydrogen plant, which require salt to operate efficiently. Salt acts as a stable, predictable and natural battery that can store energy for long periods of time, to be released when needed. Ward explained that, “It serves the same function as a battery, but where batteries are good for hours at a time, this is seasonal storage.”

Intermountain is in the process of retooling to convert the plant’s capability to generate power from natural gas, with a planned reopening in 2025. At that time, 70% of the energy it produces will come from natural gas, with 30% from hydrogen production. Natural gas has effectively supplanted coal, comprising around 35% of the power supply in the last few years, according to the EIA.

Until 2045, when Intermountain anticipates operating a 100% hydrogen-generating plant, its natural gas production will gradually decline as hydrogen production ramps up. In addition to producing cleaner power, this move will preserve some of the jobs that would have been lost had the plant simply closed.

About the Author

Lori Lovely

Lori Lovely is an award-winning writer and editor in central Indiana. She writes on technical topics, heavy equipment, automotive, motorsports, energy, water and wastewater, animals, real estate, home improvement, gardening and more. Reach her at: Lo...

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