- Associated Press - Tuesday, March 25, 2014

CASPER, Wyo. (AP) - Black Hills Corp. has closed down a coal-fired power plant outside Gillette, a move the company says is in response to recent federal emissions regulations.

Black Hills Corp. last week closed the 22-megawatt Neil Simpson 1 plant. The company is building a 132-megawatt natural gas plant in Cheyenne, which will replace much of the lost power.

The Casper Star-Tribune reports (http://bit.ly/1h5yxWU ) the closure of the coal-fired plant follows the recent trend that has seen utilities nationwide move away from older coal-fired facilities in favor of new natural gas powered plants.

Black Hills will decommission three coal plants this year, two in Wyoming and one in Colorado. A third coal unit in South Dakota will close next year.

Black Hills officials said the closures were a response to recent U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regulations aimed at reducing harmful emissions from industrial boilers and curbing mercury pollution.

“Replacing Black Hills Power’s three oldest coal-fired power plants is less expensive for customers than retrofitting the plants to comply with the new EPA standards,” said Sharon Fain, a utility spokeswoman.

“Although these plants were once built with state-of-the-art technology, they are now 42-62 years old. It would be very expensive to update these plants to meet new EPA requirements, and newer technology used on new plants can now better reduce emissions,” Fain said.

Environmentalists hailed the retirement of the coal plants. They said it was evidence utilities were bowing to the reality that coal-generated electricity is dirty and inefficient.

Jeremy Nichols, climate and energy program director at the environmental group WildEarth Guardians, noted mercury pollution can impair the development of fetuses and poses other health risks.

“Energy is about trade-offs, without a doubt. I think mercury pollution is not an acceptable option,” Nichols said. “The last thing we want is a pregnant mother to be exposed to mercury. That is not a cost I think society wants to shoulder today.”

Coal backers, however, decried the closures as a sign of the Obama administration’s “war on coal.”

“Our power is going to cost more, and it is all because of government policy,” said Rep. Cynthia Lummis, R-Wyo. “This really hits everyday Americans directly in the pocketbook.”

The Neil Simpson I plant closed March 19, Black Hills officials said. The utility also has plans to begin decommissioning the Osage plant this year. The 34.5-megawatt coal fired unit in northeastern Wyoming has been idle since 2010.

Two coal units at W.N. Clark plant in Canon City, Colo., will begin decommissioning this year, while the 25-megawatt coal unit at the Ben French power plant in Rapid City will be decommissioned next year.

All the plants have two things in common: They are old and relatively small. None was installed after 1969 and none produces more than 40 megawatts of power. Neil Simpson II, by comparison, was commissioned in 1995 and generates 90 megawatts of electricity.

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