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Lewis County’s Centralia bets on clean energy as coal economy fades

By Renata Geraldo, The Seattle Times
Published: June 5, 2023, 6:02am

CENTRALIA — The dense, white cloud of steam coming out of a dark green building here has been a constant part of the landscape for more than half a century. Now, the Lewis County town of about 19,000 is getting ready to bid farewell to the cloud source: Washington’s last coal-fired power plant, overlooked by Mount Rainier and sprawling hills sprinkled with wind turbines.

The steam cloud will permanently fade when the power plant closes in 2025, per a 2011 agreement between the state and power generation company TransAlta, which since 2000 has owned and operated the 11,000-acre property that once housed a coal mine.

The power plant’s closure, a step in Washington’s move to a fully green electricity grid, is likely to mark the end of the coal economy in Centralia and the beginning of a renewable energy hub. Companies are eyeing pilot plants for that property, aiming to replace the single largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the state and promising to offer new job opportunities to the power plant employees.

The new technologies may provide a way for Centralia to remain a town of electricity generation, but in a greener way, and continue to fuel the state’s grid, said University of Washington professor of power and energy systems Daniel Kirschen.

“Continuing to have generation in Centralia is actually very useful,” Kirschen said. “Keeping that big grid stable is a difficult job.”

Growing interest

Calgary, Alberta-based TransAlta has green energy contenders looking to set up shop in Centralia, changing the region’s historically coal-focused energy generation into a hub for innovative energy technologies.

Among the interested parties is Australia-based Fortescue Future Industries, founded by billionaire Andrew Forrest. FFI produces green hydrogen, a form of carbon-neutral energy generation, by splitting water into hydrogen and oxygen using renewable energy.

FFI already has an agreement with TransAlta to assess whether it could establish a green hydrogen-generation plant there. FFI declined to make executives available for an interview.

The TransAlta property will also use First Mode’s hydrogen-powered trucks to help with reclamation work at the former mine. First Mode, a Seattle green transportation startup, has developed trucks that are three stories tall and double the size of TransAlta’s trucks, so they can carry more earth. First Mode’s trucks will begin operating early this summer.

“The decommissioning of the mine and then the upcoming decommissioning of the power station is not an insignificant impact to employment in the region,” said Chris Voorhees, First Mode co-founder and chief products and technology officer. “We’re hoping that we can contribute in a positive way to the trend with new jobs in a new kind of area of expertise.”

Also eyeing the plant is Zap Energy, a fusion power startup that has signed a memorandum of understanding with TransAlta. Last year, the Seattle startup received a $1 million grant from the Centralia Coal Transition Energy Technology Board to assess the feasibility of a pilot plant, a process set to be completed later this year. Zap has plans to occupy a smaller, offline gas power plant next to the coal plant.

Carbon-neutral fusion is known as the holy grail of energy production because it theoretically provides unlimited clean energy. The technology from Zap Energy relies on combining hydrogen, the lightest atom, which creates heat to power a steam cycle.

“We’re still kind of on our first date, if you will, between the two companies,” Zap Energy Vice President Ryan Umstattd said, referring to TransAlta and Zap.

The widespread commercial adoption of fusion energy may be decades out, UW’s Kirschen said.

Zap’s Umstattd said that the other companies interested in Centralia may provide a market opportunity for the fusion energy startup.

“Now you’ve got an option of not just putting electricity up onto the high-voltage transmission,” Umstattd said, “you just deliver electricity to a customer who’s a couple hundred yards down the road so that they can use that clean electricity to make green hydrogen.”

Centralia has a geographic and structural advantage for companies interested in renewable energy generation. It sits strategically between Seattle and Portland and there is already infrastructure to send that energy into the grid. Creating such infrastructure is expensive, Kirschen said.

In a release announcing FFI’s plan to repurpose the plant, Joe Clark, the executive director of Centralia and Chehalis’ public transportation system Twin Transit, said green hydrogen can help decarbonize the region’s public transit. It can also make the Interstate 5 corridor greener “and provide distribution of hydrogen across the region,” he said.

Finding a replacement

Washington’s largest utility provider, Puget Sound Energy, has a purchasing agreement with TransAlta to use electricity from the Centralia plant until it shuts down in 2025. Out of PSE’s total electric load, 14.5% came from the TransAlta plant in 2022.

Centralia produces enough energy to power about 300,000 homes annually. That number will decrease with time as PSE will purchase less energy from the TransAlta plant closer to its shutdown date, according to the agreement.

PSE, like all utility companies in Washington, is in the process of decarbonizing its energy by 2045 under the state’s Clean Energy Transformation Act, signed into law in 2019 by Gov. Jay Inslee.

The closure of the TransAlta plant will contribute to PSE’s reduction in emissions in 2025, bringing its portfolio to 63% of clean energy, said John Mannetti, PSE’s director of Strategic Energy Initiatives.

The utility provider is still looking for replacements for the TransAlta plant. Mannetti said PSE is in talks with FFI to potentially use the energy generated there.

Coal power is reliable when there aren’t enough natural resources to power solar and wind farms, Mannetti said. PSE is looking at options ranging from green hydrogen to nuclear power, as both are carbon-neutral and reliable regardless of the weather.

The Clean Energy Transformation Act leads to other challenges for a fully renewable grid, UW’s Kirschen said. The demand for more energy, such as for a growing fleet of electrical vehicles, will increase over time, and the infrastructure from solar and wind energy will also have to be more robust, he said.

“We may have to import it from other places,” Kirschen said. “Maybe the better place to build wind farms might be in Wyoming, so we would then import electricity from Wyoming.”

Replacing coal

The former TransAlta coal mine, which was decommissioned in 2006, is in the process of reclamation after years of extraction, and it is still a source of seasonal employment.

It has taken years to fill, grade, replant trees and dredge ponds that were once used to clean the coal. Because the soil gets unstable with rainwater, most of the work happens in the summer, said Mike Lydon, the mine manager who has worked there for 42 years.

About half of the reclamation work has been completed since 2006, Lydon said. Elk have returned to the area. The Douglas fir trees that Lydon’s team planted are growing and shading the grass.

Once the work is complete, Lydon said the area has the potential to become a conservation project where people could camp and hike, bringing tourism dollars to Lewis County and fueling Centralia’s downtown.

Randy Krogseth, 71, worked at the mine for 43 years. He was among the crew that built the plant and started coal mining in the area. Because of his seniority, he remained at TransAlta after the mine shut down to work in reclamation.

Krogseth said he thought there was not enough planning around what would replace the power plant when it goes fully offline in 2025.

“It just didn’t need to be done yet,” Krogseth said. “What’s going to be in its place? It was poor timing. … We were making a difference, I thought, in how we control the electricity for the people.”

National focus on energy transition

The agreement to close the Centralia power plant happened 12 years before the Biden administration announced plans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from coal-fired power plants across the U.S. this month.

The administration’s plans require coal-fired power plants to install costly carbon-capture systems, although 60% of all coal power-generation plants are already planning to close by 2040.

TransAlta’s coal power plant is one of the cleanest in North America for emissions, according to the company. The steam comes out of a single tower that was specifically designed and built to curb emissions, said Chris DuPont, manager of operations at the plant.

Compared with other sources of electricity in the state, coal has low output. Hydroelectric power is the largest source, followed by natural gas and nuclear power, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

Still, the TransAlta power plant was the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the state in 2021, data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency showed. In nearby Chehalis, a PacifiCorp gas power plant was another top source of emissions in Washington in 2021, according to the EPA.

“A good living”

The work to retire the two-unit power plant has gone through stages. It reached its halfway point in 2020 when Unit 1, once a reliable source of energy for the state, went offline.

In a building with tall structures and machines dating back to 1970, remnants of Unit 1 were still there in April. In a way, what’s left looked like a decaying human heart after some of its parts were sold following the shutdown.

Workers who witnessed the Unit 1 shutdown still recall that day.

Turning Unit 1 off on the last day of 2020 was not a ceremonial event, said Mike Tomasheck, 63, who first worked at the coal mine right before graduating from high school in 1978. When the mine closed in 2006, Tomasheck returned a few years later to work on Unit 1 until he retired with the unit.

“It takes several hours for the unit to come down,” Tomasheck said. “Everybody that was there at the time continued to work, so there wasn’t a mass exodus.”

About 550 people were let go when the mine closed, and 64 people were laid off when Unit 1 was shut down.

Unit 2 is still in operation, running steadily and so loud anyone nearby must wear earplugs. An average of five trains a day arrive carrying coal from the Powder River Basin, one of the main suppliers of coal in an area that stretches through Wyoming and Montana.

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The roughly 115 workers left with Unit 2 are preparing for the end of the operation. Some employees retired; others changed industries or left the state to work in mines across the country. Only a few remained at the plant through the years.

For some workers, the answer could be going out of state. That was the choice several miners made in 2006, including Chad Warnken, 50. For him, mining work is generational, as he followed in his dad and grandfather’s path into the industry. Although he considered his TransAlta co-workers a big family, he left Lewis County to get a mining job.

He moved to Montana and Arizona to work in mines. Warnken now lives in Waxhaw, S.C., and works at a gold mine. He said the Centralia plant brought economic development to the area.

“It was a good living form, and it helped everybody in the surrounding areas,” Warnken said. “It brought money to everything to help build, to make things better for people, to give ‘em a good life where they can live without struggling.”

There is a tight-knit group of former workers that remained in the area. The TransAlta employees were a family, former miner Kathy Chastain said. Once every month, ex-employees in the region still get together to catch up over breakfast. Mine manager Lydon said he and a group of former employees plan motorcycle rides on weekends.

Warnken said people’s connection to the job is still so strong, many would consider going back if they could.

“The sad thing is, I know 100% in my heart that if the mine would open back up, all those guys that were mad and hurt and felt left out broken by the mine would’ve gone back [with] open arms to make that place great again,” Warnken said.

After the 2011 agreement with the state, TransAlta created a $20 million fund to help transition its workforce to other fields, including green energy. As a result, the company has invested in local colleges and other resources around the region, TransAlta Vice President Mickey Dreher said. Similarly, FFI said its planned plant would keep jobs for the people working at the power plant.

The region has additional resources to help with the transition, such as Pacific Mountain Workforce Development, which is “a convener of regional workforce development efforts.” PacMtn CEO William Westmoreland said in an interview that the interest of renewable energy companies in the region provides a unique opportunity for the workers there.

“A lot of folks in the coal sector have skills that are diminishing, [and] they have diminishing opportunities, but there are also a lot of those skills that are transferable,” Westmoreland said.

There are also free resources available through WorkSource, which helps connect laid-off workers to services including retraining programs and mental health resources. PacMtn oversees WorkSource services in Lewis County.

At its peak, the Centralia power plant could power a city as large as Los Angeles, former miner Chastain said. But the glory days are gone. The number of former TransAlta employees has shrunk. Several have died. The ones remaining still keep the bond they built working together for so many years, she said. Like many of them, the power plant is ready to be retired, Chastain said.

“It needed to come offline because it was that old, it’s tired and old,” Chastain said. “That metal can only stretch for so long and it becomes a problem.”