PORTLAND — The hydro-dependent Pacific Northwest is far from the center of America’s coal country, but a debate over the future of one coal-fired power plant in Oregon is reverberating across the country.
Portland General Electric last month proposed eliminating Oregon’s only coal-fired power plant by the end of 2020, at least 20 years earlier than anticipated. The proposal comes as Oregon environmental regulators consider requiring up to $600 million worth of new pollution controls to limit haze that’s fogging wilderness areas around the Columbia River Gorge.
Environmental groups are split between those who embrace an early closure and others unwilling to accept another decade of coal-burning pollution.
That fissure became evident in a panel discussion Friday afternoon during the NW Energy Coalition’s annual conference at the Red Lion Hotel by the Oregon Convention Center.
“It’s not just Boardman. It’s not just the power system of the Pacific Northwest,” said Angus Duncan, director of the Bonneville Environmental Foundation. “What happens in this little drama will end up influencing, if not setting a precedent, for the 700 to 1,300 coal plants across the United States.”
PGE’s 585-megawatt plant outside the small Eastern Oregon town of Boardman is the state’s single largest generator of smog-inducing emissions, but it’s also a relatively cheap form of energy that accounts for about 15 percent of PGE’s energy supply.
“It’s a significant chunk of power,” said Dave Robertson, PGE’s vice president of public policy. “We have to think seriously about how we replace that.”
Robertson said electric industry representatives across the country are closely watching the situation. State and federal regulators’ decision on whether or not to accept PGE’s offer is considered even more crucial in light of the fact that Congress is unlikely to pass a federal law imposing a cap-and-trade system to reduce greenhouse gases.
“If we can get this right, where we get significant interim emission reductions and an early shut down, you’ll get early coal plant closures even without a cap-and-trade bill,” Robertson said.
That’s no small achievement, said Bob Jenks, executive director of the Citizens’ Utility Board of Oregon.
“Oregon’s going to close a freakin’ coal plant,” he said. “And not just any coal plant — a freakin’ base-load modern coal plant built in the 1970s.”
The plant, which actually came on line in 1980, remains the subject of a lawsuit by the Sierra Club intended to enforce Clean Air Act standards. A Sierra Club representative said the group is unwilling to let these rules slide for another 10 years.
Coal-burning emits heavy metals and other toxins that affect human health, spews greenhouse gases into the atmosphere and obscures views in ecologically important airsheds, said Robin Everett, organizer of the Sierra Club’s national Beyond Coal Campaign.
“This plant puts toxins into the air and water that’s responsible for four of the five leading causes of death in the United States. These are serious toxins,” Everett said. “If we wait another 10 years … the impacts could be disruptive and permanent.”
Emission-free hydroelectricity provides the backbone of the Northwest’s energy supply.
Yet Jenks noted that coal plants provide a greater level of reliability than other energy sources, including hydro, because they aren’t reliant on natural fluctuations such as snowmelt that drives dam turbines in the Columbia River. Coal plants can run day and night on demand.
The Boardman debate resonates in Washington, where the state Department of Ecology recently struck an agreement with the Evergreen State’s only major coal-fired power plant to reduce the emission of nitrogen oxide and mercury. (Mile-long coal trains routinely pass through Vancouver on their way to the TransAlta plant north of Centralia.) Environmental groups have been pressing Washington officials for tougher action, as they have in Oregon.
Erik Robinson: 360-735-4551 or firstname.lastname@example.org.