This Utah coal plant could be the first to convert to hydrogen energy

Here’s how rural Utahns and the L.A. government teamed up to bring a coal plant into the future.

Illustrated by Lais Borges/Mic; Getty Images
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Coal production in the United States peaked in 2008. Since then, we have increasingly moved away from the dirty burning energy source, which has greatly reduced the country’s carbon footprint and significantly improved our air quality. Ditching coal is the right decision for the planet, for our budget, and for our health.

But in abandoning coal, we’re also abandoning the infrastructure that used to power the country, leaving behind the skeleton of the nation’s previous electric grid. More than 300 coal plants have shut down since 2010, with dozens more scheduled for retirement in the next decade. Getting rid of coal is essential to a clean energy future, but it’s not without its costs — ongoing methane emissions from insufficient clean-up of abandoned sites, hundreds of lost jobs, and economic busts for nearby communities.

Intermountain Power Plant was one of those coal plants destined to die. Opened in 1973, it was the result of a cooperative effort between unlikely partners: rural, conservative leadership in central Utah, and the urban, progressive government of Los Angeles. Despite being nearly 600 miles away from the City of Angels, Intermountain provided one-fifth of the city’s electricity as recently as 2018.

Now, though, Intermountain has been slated for shut down in 2025 because its biggest client, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP), has decided it is done with coal. The writing on the wall has been there since 2013, when the LADWP — the largest municipal utility in the country — announced it would shift toward cleaner energy sources. Intermountain’s coal facilities will indeed be retired, but that won’t be the end of the plant’s story.

Fencing surrounds the coal-fired Intermountain Power Plant on March 28, 2016, outside Delta, Utah.

Photo by George Frey/Getty Images

“About 10 years ago, Utah participants had a decision to make,” Intermountain Power Agency spokesperson John Ward tells Mic. “Do we just say, ‘This has been a great experience but we’ll shut it down and walk away’ — which is happening in a lot of coal communities around the country — or do we try to take advantage of all this existing infrastructure and put together a new project that meets the needs of all these project participants?”

Intermountain chose the latter route, hoping to salvage as much of the plant’s function as possible — in part because the specter of the other path could be seen just down I-15. “There’s another power plant about 200 miles south of the Intermountain power project, the Navajo plant,” Ward explains. It was about the same size as Intermountain, was built around the same time, and had a similar participant base. “That plant has already been torn down and is a flat spot in the desert with really nothing to replace it.”

At Intermountain, the transition plan is an ambitious one: Turn the existing coal plant into a site that can generate hydrogen, a clean fuel source. The key is that when hydrogen is burned, it doesn’t release carbon dioxide or any other harmful greenhouse gas emission. It just releases water.

Converting coal plants to cleaner alternatives isn’t exactly novel at this point. Illinois, for instance, is planning to use coal plants’ existing hook-ups to the electrical grid — high-tension wire connections and towers that would otherwise be costly and time-consuming to construct — to get more solar power online. But otherwise, decommissioned coal plants tend to sit unused; the land and the buildings are just kind of left there. The Intermountain plan stands out because it would use the entire facility to generate clean energy, rather than just a small portion of it.

Of course, there’s a reason the transition to hydrogen is rare — okay, actually, it’s never been done before. The biggest is location. For a hydrogen plant to operate efficiently, it needs salt, and lots of it. Salt deposits are a natural store of power, and one that has been tapped for natural gas and oil in the past. The reason this resource is so valuable is because of salt’s ability to serve as a stable, predictable natural battery that can hold onto energy for extended periods. Salt caverns are particularly important when it comes to hydrogen production because hydrogen is extremely energy-intensive to produce. Without the salt to store excess energy, much of it might go unused, which is obviously counter to the sustainable goals here.

“Where batteries are good for hours at a time, this is seasonal storage.”

Salt domes, which are naturally occurring formations, are relatively common in the South, but considerably less so in the West. In fact, there is only one salt dome between Intermountain and the states it serves that’s the correct size and quality to support a hydrogen plant — and it just so happens to be almost directly underneath the existing coal facility. Ward calls this a happy “geologic coincidence” that should make the whole clean energy transformation possible.

Intermountain will go from burning coal to splitting water into hydrogen and oxygen through a process known as electrolysis. When that process is completed, it creates energy that can be harnessed to provide electricity. And, because of the salt dome beneath the Intermountain plant, that energy could theoretically be stored for months at a time and released when it’s needed.

“It serves the same function as a battery, but where batteries are good for hours at a time, this is seasonal storage,” explains Ward.

It’s popular among climate skeptics to say that renewable energy generation comes to a halt when conditions aren’t right — former President Donald Trump once snarked, “When the wind doesn’t blow, just turn off the television” — and, while they’re not being 100% honest, it is true that energy generation ebbs and flows with the weather. Intermountain’s transition would fix that problem two separate ways. First, the salt dome enables any excess hydrogen energy to be stored securely and efficiently, which also means it could be released when production from wind and solar are at their lowest (e.g., when the sun isn’t shining or wind isn’t blowing). Second, solar and wind tend to produce the most energy during the day, when demand is at its lowest, which means lots of energy sometimes burns off unused. Instead of letting that power go to waste, it could be utilized in the electrolysis process to produce the hydrogen energy that can be stored more effectively.

The transition isn’t going to be immediate, though Ward says it’s already moving faster than expected. First, Intermountain will shift from coal to natural gas, which will provide 70% of energy generated when the reimagined plant opens in 2025. The remaining 30% will come from hydrogen production. Over time, those numbers will flip; the goal is that by 2045, Intermountain will be a 100% hydrogen-generating plant.

The transition was driven by the demand from Los Angeles to shift to clean energy — but the Utah side of the equation is on board with the makeover, too. “The way the project governance is set up, nobody can really do anything without both the Utah participants and the California participants in agreement. You’ve got this long track record of regional cooperation that really works to our favor,” Ward says.

For Utah, it’s going to keep jobs in the state. Ward tells Mic that contractors are already on site. By the time everything is up and running, the project operators estimate there will be about 150 jobs that will stick around at Intermountain — less than half of what once was, but significantly more than the potential zero jobs that would be there if the plant stopped operating entirely. Ward estimates that more jobs will be available in the community, too, by keeping the plant up and running.

Intermountain might just be a happy “geologic coincidence,” but if its transition is successful, it’ll be much more than that. It will be proof that clean hydrogen energy can work on a large scale when the conditions are right. “The reason the world is watching this project is that it’s a demonstration that these technologies can be integrated at utility scale,” Ward says.

While it’s something that has never been tried before, it could spur a technological revolution. “This is not a science fair experiment where there are technical issues to solve,” Ward says. “The path is known. And all of the elements of this thing are mature.”