Efforts to improve efficiency at the River Road Generating Plant represent a pragmatic approach to climate change and power production for Clark Public Utilities. As tempting as it is to recommend the quick closing of the plant, which is powered with fossil fuels, reality argues for another approach.
The River Road Generating Plant turns natural gas into electricity for local residents and businesses. Located between Vancouver Lake and the Columbia River, it currently generates 34 percent of the power delivered by the utility.
As recently detailed in The Columbian, Clark Public Utilities commissioners last month approved $10.6 million in upgrades to the plant. The goal: To allow more flexibility in decreasing or increasing power generation depending upon demand.
As a spokesperson for the utility said, “This is a very significant investment for us — probably one of the biggest at the plant itself.”
With that investment comes questions about utility leaders’ sincerity about addressing climate concerns. Being powered by natural gas, the generating plant emits carbon, which has been shown to exacerbate climate change. Renewable energy — hydropower, solar and wind energy — creates much lower levels of carbon.
We agree with the need to cut emissions in power production. The impact of human-caused climate change is becoming increasingly clear through extreme weather events, more frequent and powerful wildfires, and persistent drought conditions.
But cutting emissions requires a sober approach that simultaneously serves customers and the environment.
Clark Public Utilities has plans to shutter the River Road Generating Plant by 2045. The timeline is designed to allow for further development of alternative energy sources and to ease toward reduced carbon emissions. Maintaining a bridge to that future is essential in order to keep production and rates stable.
The Legislature in 2019 passed the Clean Energy Transformation Act, establishing parameters for utilities. The guidelines are ambitious, recognizing Washington’s commitment to nonemitting energy production. But they also are practical, allowing for a transition rather than abrupt changes that would hamper the broader economy.
The ongoing improvements to the River Road plant will create flexibility that helps reduce emissions. As explained by reporter Sarah Wolf: “Rather than having to power down the plant for an entire month when other resources are plentiful and cheaper, the utility would be able to make that judgment daily.”
Last month, utility officials received approval from the Bonneville Power Administration to deliver less energy from the plant in the future and to reduce production when renewable sources are available.
All of that makes the $10.6 million investment worthwhile. Officials estimate the changes will save the utility — and therefore ratepayers — about $3.2 million a year.
Mothballing the River Road Generating Plant as soon as possible — thereby reducing emissions — is tempting. But utility commissioners must balance that desire with the need to keep rates low and to develop alternative energy sources. Shuttering the plant in the near future would require the purchase of additional energy and cause rates to increase.
Investing in the plant and creating efficiencies that reduce emissions is a laudable approach while officials continue moving toward a clean-energy future.