Electricity Rate Hike Would Make It Cheaper To Buy Trona From China Than Wyoming

Wyoming produces about 90% of the U.S. demand for trona. Rep. Jon Conrad says a proposed electricity rate hike would drive costs so high that the mines would struggle to compete with trona from China.

August 15, 20234 min read

Trona is mined underground, using heavy equipment like this continuous miner. The ore is then carried to the surface and processed.
Trona is mined underground, using heavy equipment like this continuous miner. The ore is then carried to the surface and processed. (Wyoming Mining Association)

Should the Wyoming Public Service Commission approve the rate increase that Wyoming’s largest utility requested, Wyoming’s trona industry is going to take a serious hit. 

“It’s an incredible impact,” state Rep. Jon Conrad, R-Mountain View, told Cowboy State Daily. 

Conrad said those increased costs will make it more difficult for the industry to compete with China. 

Extreme Disappointment

Wyoming has the largest deposit of trona in the world, and the state’s mines supply about 90% of America’s demand. 

Trona is a sodium carbonate compound that is processed into soda ash, more commonly known as baking soda. The product is used, among other things, to make laundry detergents, paper products and glass. 

In 2018, Wyoming’s trona mines produced 17.4 million pounds of the stuff and employed 2,225 people, according to the Wyoming Mining Association. The operations have grown in the past several years, so employment is likely higher today. 

Last spring, Rocky Mountain Power, which is owned by PacifiCorp, requested two rate increases. A smaller increase requested in April is to cover unexpected fuel costs arising from high demand during last winter’s cold snaps, and a larger rate increase is a net power cost adjustment due to increases in purchased power and the cost of fuel. 

Conrad is manager of environmental and government affairs for Tata Soda Ash Partners. He said the trona mines are looking at about a 33% increase in their energy costs because of the rate hikes. 

He said it’s an “extreme disappointment” and “creating a detrimental impact on the whole industry.” 

The increased cost will make it cheaper for China to export its trona to the United States than it is for Wyoming’s trona mines to produce the product and ship it to other states. 

Purchased Power

Rocky Mountain Power requested the larger increase to cover purchased power and the cost of fuel. With a larger share of the utility’s power coming from wind power, which only produces electricity when there’s enough wind, it’s had to buy a lot of energy off the market. That means higher costs. 

The company also is making large investments in transmission lines and expanding wind power. 

Rocky Mountain Power currently has among the lowest rates of other major regional and Wyoming utilities, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.  

The utility’s long-range planning documents lay out further closures of coal-fired power and conversions of some coal units to natural gas. 

Should these plans be realized, the company will be even more dependent on the volatile gas market to supply dispatchable power when wind and solar farms fail, as they regularly do, and for sudden spikes in demand. 

American Life

Fortunately for Wyoming’s coal industry, the coal mines in the Powder River Basin are served by the Powder River Energy Corp. 

Travis Deti, executive director for the Wyoming Mining Association, told Cowboy State Daily that operators in the areas served by Rocky Mountain Power are worried about the impacts should the rate increase be approved. Besides the mines, he said the increase won’t leave many untouched. 

“Increased power costs are a concern across the board,” Deti said. “When you increase the cost of energy, you increase the cost of everything. It’s not only an industry. It’s not only mining. It’s American life.” 

Public Service Commission 

Conrad said that RMP's plans will push its renewable energy portfolio to 70% or 80% renewable energy, with a lot of hope for dispatchable power placed on a Bill Gates-funded nuclear project under development in Kemmerer. 

He said there’s going to be a long gap between when that project comes online and the time when coal plants are shut down. 

This means a lot of natural gas-fired power in between. To recoup the projected increases in natural gas prices, they’re increasing rates to recoup those costs. 

The Wyoming Public Service Commission will consider the company’s request at a hearing in October, but Rep. Tony Locke, R-Casper, requested the PSC hold a public hearing, which is scheduled for Aug. 24, so Wyoming residents can voice their concerns.

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