Northwest Clean Energy Groups Target Out-Of-State Coal Plants

Apr 22, 2015

A lot of energy in the Northwest comes from hydropower and wind turbines – all carbon-free.
There will be even less greenhouse gas pollution in the coming years, because the only coal plants in Oregon and Washington are scheduled to shut down. But that won’t stop coal-fired power from flowing into the region from out-of-state plants. So, Northwest clean energy advocates are taking aim at coal plants in Wyoming, Montana and Utah.

Credit Cassandra Profita / Earthfix

Davis: "The next level's the coal bunkers."

Manager Kyle Davis is showing me around the coal-fired power plant where he's worked for the past 39 years.

Davis: "It's pretty dirty in there, so try not to brush up against the handrails. But you can see the coal coming into the plant."

It’s one of several plants in the Rocky Mountain region PacifiCorp uses to generate electricity for customers in six western states, including Oregon and Washington. It's in the heart of coal country, and it's named accordingly: It's called the Carbon Plant, and it's located in Carbon County, Utah.

Davis: "It's called Carbon County, and it's because of all the coal seams in the county."

Davis grew up just down the road from this plant. His dad worked here before he did. And for generations, people in Carbon County have built their lives around coal.

Davis: "Just about everybody I grew up with ended up in either the mines or the power plants."

But times are hard for the plant and county named after coal. This plant, where Davis has worked for most his life, is going to retire before he does. PacifiCorp is closing the plant this month.

Davis: "The environmental regulations just keep tightening and there becomes more of them. The county's coal mines are in decline.”

Now, the Environmental Protection Agency has proposed new carbon regulations – the Clean Power Plan was designed to address climate change. But that’s not what killed the Carbon Plant. It was a different set of EPA rules on mercury and other toxic air pollutants.

22:15 "There's just a myriad of different environmental requirements before we get to these new carbon rules."

Pat Reiten of PacifiCorp says his utility company has spent more than a billion dollars on pollution controls to keep its coal plants running amid a barrage of EPA regulations. But with its Carbon Plant in Utah, shutting it down made more sense than upgrading. PacifiCorp is reaching that conclusion for many of its other coal burning plants. Right now, the company relies on coal for two-thirds of its power mix. It’s planning to shrink that to less than 40 percent by 2030.

Reiten: “We are not wedded to coal. We are clearly moving away from it, and the only question is how far, how fast.”

A lot of utilities are wondering whether they'll have coal in their future at all.

Harris: "So, what is the future of coal?"

That's Kimberly Harris, CEO of Washington's Puget Sound Energy.

Harris: "It's complex. It's uncertain. It's transitional."

The day after the EPA released its draft Clean Power Plan last year she was on stage talking about it at conference of utility regulators. Her utility still relies on a coal plant in Montana for about a quarter of its power. She explained that the transition from coal needs to be be slow and careful. An immediate end to coal-fired power?

Harris: "Well, that’s not going to work. You can't just shut down all the coal units and expect for the grid to continue to operate."

But some in the Northwest say a total coal shutdown is what the planet needs. Amy Hojnowski of The Sierra Club says it's great that the two coal-fired power plants in Oregon and Washington are scheduled to close.

Hojnowski: "The next step is really looking at what are we doing about all the coal we're using from out of state resources, and saying what can we do to get truly coal free."

Her group is turning to the Washington and Oregon legislatures. It’s pushing bills in both states that set an expiration date on all coal-fired power. Utilities in the Northwest say they're not ready to ditch coal altogether. But with more and more rules stacked against them they recognize it may not be a matter of if but when.

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