This is the beast of central Utah. This is a voracious coal fired one-thousand-eight-hundred-megawatt (1800 MW) climate emergency inducing power station. Broke ground in 1981, went online in 1986. Most of the electricity for the last 35 years has been destined for the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power some 600 miles to the south.
Delta, Utah is the biggest town in Millard County. Milk cows outnumber the towns 3500 citizens, and not by a few but by a lot. This is Great Basin Desert. This piece is called the Sevier Desert with a river of the same name running from north to south out into a miles wide sink. To the west you’ve got Sawtooth and Swase Mountain, Whirlwind Valley and Swasey Bottom. East there are the Church, Canyon and Gilson Mountains. You got Fool Creek Flat and Oak Creek Sinks scattered beneath the picturesque steep terrain. Much of the Sevier Desert is less scenic, dryer. Beyond the hay fields and dairies is a parched desolation that displeases the eye.
Intermountain Generating Station
I have been traveling through Delta for many decades. North of town the Intermountain Power Station had never caught my eye. The smokestack towers 700 feet high is visible from 20 miles away. There is a direct current high voltage powerline that run from the plant to Los Angeles. Buried underground is a natural gas pipeline that runs from Wyoming to Delta then to Las Vegas, connecting with oil fields in Bakersfield. Union Pacific Railway hauls diesel, gasoline, and coal here. This is a major energy hub, a vital piece of America’s energy system.
Los Angeles Department of Power and Water has been under orders to decarbonize. Unwilling to renew a purchase agreement with Utah’s Intermountain Power Station the managers with offices in Salt Lake City found there were no takers for power produced from coal.
California’s effort to decarbonize forced Utah, the owners of the power station to adapt. In 2017 a decision was taken to retrofit the coal powered turbines with a pair of Mitsubishi Hitachi Power System (MHPS) turbines capable of being fueled by natural gas and then green hydrogen.
Injection Well/Salt Cavern Below
Below the Sevier Desert there is a rare series of salt dome formations. Magnum Development in 2010 had initially bought rights from the state of Utah to expand and develop the below ground caverns to store fossil fuel.
The caverns purpose is being reconfigured. This initiative is called the Advanced Clean Energy Storage (ACES) project. “ACES is planning to use four types of clean energy storage technologies including renewable hydrogen, compressed air energy storage, large scale flow batteries and solid oxide fuel cells.” The scale of this project is enormous. “A single cavern can contain enough pressurized hydrogen to produce 150,000 megawatt hours of energy. You would need 40,000 shipping containers of lithium-ion batteries for the same megawatt hours.” Magnum expects to develop 100 such storage salt caverns.
Let’s talk about green hydrogen. It is created from water that is run through an electrolyzer. As more and more solar and wind turbines have been deployed across the American West there occur times when there is excess power that ends up wasted. The surplus energy will be diverted to an electrolyzer for making carbon free hydrogen. The hydrogen is stored adjacent to the power station to use anytime the wind doesn’t blow or the sun doesn’t shine. Proximity to the power station, not needing to transport the gas is key.
Remember Moore’s Law is in effect here even though in this instance it isn’t about doubling the number of transistors on a circuit board every two years, but instead is describes the decreasing cost of capturing energy by sun and wind, and how those costs predictably decrease each year. Since 2010 renewable energy costs have gone from $2.00 a watt to $0.20. A decade ago, the cost of making electrolyzed green hydrogen while technically possible remained cost prohibitive and out of reach.
What about all those good paying coal mining jobs in Wyoming? Come to Delta is my suggestion. Can’t find work here try Thacker Pass in Nevada where the new lithium mine is breaking ground. To send energy from Delta new powerlines will help distribute more power to more markets across the American West. Maybe hire on as a high power line worker, drift the Great Basin, live in a travel trailer, breathe fresh air, take weekends off, live day to day in a world without traffic.
Several important pieces to the energy puzzle are found here in Delta. First, green hydrogen is expensive to move where the cost of sending electricity across the grid is not. Then a lithium battery that can only store energy for a short period of time can’t compete with green hydrogen that can be stored indefinitely until the electricity is needed. Yes, you can make green hydrogen anywhere but you because of the salt domes you can store it for a fraction of what it would take to fabricate storage tanks. Delta doesn’t look like much but for a small town with nothing to do there is a lot going on.
Biden Graffiti Sentiments Abound
I’m driving across Nevada, then on into Utah on my way to Denver and this is what I’ve found going on out here. Mitsubishi has been in the business of building hydrogen fueled turbines to power rockets. That’s why they were awarded the contract. The engineering is complex, hydrogen powered turbine blades are subjected to much higher temperatures, and it is the solution to this problem that engineers are step by step solving. The new hydrogen powered turbines go online in 2025, mixing 30% hydrogen with 70% natural gas. Metallurgical development will continue, blades that withstand the heat created by burning 100% green hydrogen will be manufactured then not the entire turbine, but just the high heat blades will be retrofitted by 2040. One of green hydrogen’s byproducts is nitrogen oxide, it isn’t carbon, but it isn’t benign, and research is underway to remedy this issue.
Once the pandemic is brought under control, I’m intending to walk the sidewalks of Delta, Utah and speak to people, find out how much they know about the role their town is playing in the effort to clean up our atmosphere, walk civilization back from the precipice, to find out if they understand that they are making a life right there in the heart of one of the leading solutions to one of the world’s greatest problems. Heck, I’d buy them a drink if I could, but they’re Mormon’s and the moderately faithful don’t drink in public.