Montana coal-fired power plant to become latest in nation to close; owner cites upgrade costs

EnergyAssociated Press

The J.E. Corette coal-fired power plant in Billings will shut down in August, its owner said Tuesday, making it the latest casualty in a wave of closures across the country that have left the coal industry reeling.

The 153-megawatt plant owned by PPL Montana has operated since 1968 along the Yellowstone River. It burns coal from Wyoming's Powder River Basin.

Continue Reading Below

PPL had announced plans in 2012 to mothball the 30-worker plant this spring and restart it if market conditions improved.

But PPL spokesman David Hoffman said a recent re-analysis showed a temporary shutdown no longer made economic sense.

The projected cost to resume power generation at Corette had increased to more than $40 million, he said, even as weak electricity markets in the Pacific Northwest were keeping down profits.

The cost of a re-start stemmed primarily from the expense of new pollution controls needed to meet federal restrictions on emissions of mercury and other toxins produced by burning coal.

By the end of decade, the mercury restrictions and competition from cheap natural gas are expected to push coal plants across the country that generate more than 60,000 megawatts of power into retirement, according to the Energy Information Administration. That's the equivalent of roughly 390 Corette-sized plants.

A megawatt provides power for roughly 600 to 1,000 houses, depending on how much electricity they use.

It was uncertain how many of Corette's workers will be out of a job. Some have already been transferred to new positions within the company, Hoffman said. Others could retire early.

After the plant closes, it will be demolished and its grounds remediated over the next two years, Hoffman said. No toxic coal ash was stored on the site, which will make any cleanup easier, he said.

He was uncertain what would happen to the ownership of the site.

PPL's parent corporation in Pennsylvania last year announced plans to spin off assets including its Montana power plants to focus on other markets. The closure of the 2,100-megawatt Colstrip coal plant in southeast Montana does not alter the spinoff expected to close after March.

As part of that deal, a new corporation, Talen Energy Corp., will assume ownership of Colstrip, one of the largest power plants west of the Mississippi River.