Utah’s coal country is in the midst of redefining itself.
Carbon County — aptly named for its rich coal resources — saw the closure of its sole coal-fired power plant in 2015. Its mines, which historically numbered 16, are all shuttered.
Struggling against the backdrop of those tangible impacts, residents had to endure a property tax increase of 700% in fiscal year 2022.
Price Mayor Mike Kourianos feels the sharp knife of energy costs slicing into his budget and has to answer for that to his constituents. There is no revenue coming from coal.
As a municipal power provider, the city of Price went out into the solar energy market to purchase four megawatts of energy for the Utah State University East campus.
“We thought we had locked in at $123 a megawatt,” but that changed, he said. “Now it’s $400 a megawatt. Those are the real facts of what’s happening with the grid and, you know, the cost of energy.”
The changing grid
The mayor personally feels the pain as coal is being weaned out of the energy market. Although coal remains the third largest provider of energy in the United States, it has dropped to 18% of the market share, succumbing to natural gas in the top place at 40%, in numbers documented by the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
As the demand for coal for energy decreases, the volatile natural gas market can capitalize on that, with U.S. imports of the commodity jumping 165.5% year over year in 2022, the most dramatic increase since 2003, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Kourianos has 23 years at the Huntington Power Plant in neighboring Emery County. It is on a path to close by 2032, as is the Hunter plant, which are both operated by PacifiCorp. As a shift supervisor, he is in charge of a young workforce of 15 employees anxiously eying the future and what it may hold for their quality of life. Do they stay in coal rich country or do they go?
In a recent panel discussion hosted by Utah Business magazine and the Deseret News, the Price mayor shared this pain. It’s the pain of a new reality, of a need to look in the mirror and make some vital adjustments to remain vibrant, glowing and attractive in the future.
It is a luxury that can no longer be afforded to remember the good old days and let the gloss of what was once flourishing, appealing and the belle of the energy gala skew the fact that coal — and fossil fuels in general — are viewed by the Biden administration, a majority of Democrats and most environmental groups as a climate change-causing hag in dire need of retirement.
When Deseret News Executive Editor Doug Wilks, the moderator of the panel discussion, asked the American Coal Council if coal is dead or should be saved, she was blunt.
“In my book it is to save coal because the United States is on a trajectory of energy poverty,” said the council’s chief executive officer Emily Athurn. “We are a country that has enjoyed economic growth because of our fossil fuels and particularly because of coal and what it brings us — not only energy, but you’re talking about the steel that has gone into what made America great. Now, we’re on a timeline that is unachievable for green energy.”
She warned the United States does not want to be another South Africa, Africa’s most industrialized nation that nevertheless has endured an energy crisis with power that is out 10 hours a day due in part to aging coal-fired power plants in need of repair and the thin slice of renewable energy that is available.
“So we’re not only fighting fossil fuels, but I don’t think we understand that we’re fighting for our lifestyle and the way we conduct business in the states,” Athurn said.
Alan Hall, CEO of Blue Sky Energy, also emphasized that coal is not dead, but rather it is evolving to meet technology needs that not only exist now, but will come in the future.
Athurn stressed that the problem overall rests on supply, timing and the country’s lack of appetite for new mining.
“We do not have enough critical minerals mined today in the world, let alone in the United States. And so if mines in the United States were given the OK today, or they thought they had a plan, and they started permitting today, you’re looking at 2033 before they ever put a shovel in the ground, and that is without opposition.”
Numbers from the Institute for Energy Research, a nonprofit advocacy group tied to the industry, assert that in the United States, reaching net-zero on carbon dioxide emissions requires:
President Joe Biden has set a goal for a carbon free power sector by 2030, yet his administration has put the skids on multiple mines for copper, a lithium mine in Nevada is under intense pressure and there is political pushback on lithium mining on the shores of the Great Salt Lake for fear it may compromise the ailing body of water even further.
Nuclear power is carbon free, but according to the World Nuclear Association, the United States currently imports almost all the uranium used in commercial reactors and vital for next generation nuclear technology under development in the country. Domestic mining accounts for just 5% of the fuel used in the nation’s fleet of reactors.
Earlier this month, Biden designated a new national monument in Arizona of nearly a million acres, shutting the door on any new mining for uranium.
“I can tell you 100% of America’s high-grade uranium resources were cut off in the monument,” said Curtis Moore, senior vice president of marketing and corporate development for Energy Fuels, which runs the White Mesa Mill in Blanding and uranium mines.
Moore, in an interview with the Deseret News, said the federal government’s own science points to zero risk of harm to groundwater, the environment and human health from mining those deposits.
“I think we should be celebrating these things as gifts from God versus vilifying them. I mean, you have all this clean, carbon free electricity sitting in these little tiny, confined deposits,” he said. “You can mine them quickly and economically and provide a lot of carbon free electricity.”
Carbon County is already taking that closer look in the mirror, with its hosting of a solar field in 2021 that produces 105 megawatts of electricity.
It is luring high-tech manufacturing in which former employees of coal mines or related industries can find training and a decent job to follow.
At Merit3D, CEO Spencer Loveless, a native of Price, established his headquarters there and brought on a trio of workers from the mining industry to round out his workforce of 15.
Jason Slaughter is one of those workers. He was employed at Dugout Mine for about 16 years until it closed in 2020.
Facing an uncertain future, Merit3D fostered him in learning a new skill, and he is now working in design at the company with more than two years in this trade.
“It’s been a great change from what I used to do,” he said, adding that it was a big adjustment to go from a career where half the time he was underground.
“It was a welcome change.”
The business model Loveless uses is to manufacture a product better, more cheaply and made in the United States. His goal, too, is to help transform Carbon County and the rest of Utah’s coal country as it goes through these economic shifts.
Although he wants to fight to keep coal, “our backup plan is how to transition southeast Utah to a tech manufacturing economy and really challenge the supply chains that we’re currently dependent on with China and doing that through advanced manufacturing, additive manufacturing, 3D printing and evolve as the challenges come on.”
Coal is used for more than energy, of course — in roadways, cement production, synthetic petroleum-based fuels, carbon fiber and medicine, and researchers have demonstrated it can be used for anodes in lithium ion batteries to power electric vehicles.
Carbon fiber derived from coal is big in U.S. Department of Defense applications and in the aerospace industry.
“As we look at the evolution, what we’re putting forward as part of the evolution of coal is to take coal and convert it and refine it into its individual components, which includes hundreds of chemicals. Some of those chemicals are extremely valuable, much more valuable than coal as a source itself,” said Craig Eatough, with Combustion Resources, a Provo-based consulting company specializing in the arena of fuels and combustion.
Eatough, in fact, said during the panel discussion he’s working with the Defense Department.
“They’re looking at 3D printing of rocket nozzles for defense purposes. And they’re using coal based material in that 3D printing operation for national defense. And so that’s just one tiny example of thousands of examples that could be talked about.”
Blue Sky Energy is another Carbon County based business looking to transform coal and at the same time help replace those jobs lost in the mining industry.
Jeff Lowe, the company’s president, said the Lila Canyon mine closure after a 2022 fire offered up new opportunity and employment for the stranded coal miners. He pulled from the workforce and brought them to a new setting that does not necessitate going underground.
This company owns and operates manufacturing plants that process coal. It produces crude oil it says costs less than drilling, and carbon-neutral CHAR, a material used in a number of applications and commercially viable gasses. And it’s looking to expand.
Lyle Pearson, a managing director with Rainstar Capital, said the possibilities for repurposing coal are endless. He’s an investor in Blue Sky.
Pearson was deeply entrenched in the tech movement in Utah — what has become Silicon Slopes — asserting this innovation potential is tremendous.
“It’s a big opportunity, it’s huge. I’d say it’s even bigger.”
The challenge is to continue to get the coal.
Parents are shooing their children away from mining and manufacturing, said Kori Ann Edwards, managing director of the Utah Governor’s Office of Economic Opportunity.
“All of these industries are evolving to really cool technologies invested in them with automation and, you know, unmanned vehicles and robots and all of that doing a lot of the manual work,” she said.
The notion of “we’re the dirty manufacturing or the dirty mines” is no longer true, she added, emphasizing the country, states and industry need to get the word out.
Athurn said that, sadly, it’s true — few Americans are seeking out careers in the mining industry
While China has 1.4 million students enrolled in mining-related academic disciplines such as metallurgy or geophysics, she said the 14 mining schools in the United States have a mere 600 students pursuing those studies. In 2015, there were 1,500 people enrolled.
It’s a conundrum, Edwards added, because Utah has 42 of the 51 critical minerals identified for meeting global needs.
“We have very unique opportunities and we have very unique industry that is critical to the world,” she said. “And I think it’s important that we own how unique we are.”