A good thing: PGE's announcement about the Boardman coal plant

By Jeff Bissonnette of Portland, Oregon. Jeff is the organizing director for the Citizens' Utility Board of Oregon, a ratepayer advocacy group.

Yesterday, we learned that Portland General Electric (PGE) sent a letter to the Oregon Public Utility Commission (PUC) about the coal-fired Boardman power plant. In essence, PGE said they want to work with stakeholders to change their proposed Integrated Resource Plan (IRP) and close Boardman in 2020 rather than upgrade Boardman and operate it until 2040 or longer.

A number of folks in the Northwest have been working to stop PGE from investing $500 million in new pollution controls and operating the plant indefinitely into the future. Investing that kind of money in a pulverized coal plant makes little sense for the planet. CUB believes that by avoiding this huge investment, shutting the plant down will have a significant financial benefit to customers. However, until yesterday, PGE was holding firm on their position that they be allowed to operate Boardman at least until its expected life span through 2040. The announcement yesterday signals a turning point in the discussion about Boardman.

Because Boardman is the largest single source of greenhouse gas emissions in the State, early action to close it just by itself will significantly reduce Oregon's carbon pollution.

But reducing carbon pollution isn't just an Oregon issue. On a national level this is a very big deal. One environmental consultant predicted that this would send shock waves through the utility industry over the next few days. This may be the first baseload coal plant that is being shut down. Some utilities have proposed shutting down some really old coal plants, but those plants don't operate all that often anyway. Closing down a coal plant like Boardman, a baseload workhorse of a plant that produces electricity reliably around the clock is new. It could be game-changing.

However, this is just the start of a new discussion. Lots of details need to be worked out. By stating that keeping Boardman operating until 2040 is not the least cost/least risk resource option (which is what a utility is required to look for under PUC rules), PGE fundamentally changed the terms of the conversation. We are no longer trying to convince PGE that spending an additional $500 million on a coal plant is costly and risky. Instead we are talking to them about how and when to close the plant.

Part of those discussions will be to look at the date of closure. What are the costs and risks associated with a 2020 closure versus an even earlier date. For example, 2020 is the first benchmark for the state's greenhouse gas emissions reduction goals. If the plant is closed before 2020, then the state will make significant progress towards that goal. What is the cost of closure before 2020? How long will it take to get replacement resources on line? What closure plan is acceptable to the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), PGE's environmental regulators? What closure date is acceptable to the Oregon Public Utility Commission (PUC), PGE's rate regulators? There is a lot to work out, but the dialogue has radically changed due to PGE's announcement.


One key dynamic to consider is the one between economic and environmental regulation. On the environmental side of the regulatory coin, the DEQ and its Environmental Quality Commission (EQC) has been pushing for the investment in air quality controls if the plant is to continue operating. But even those investments would not lower carbon emissions and if PGE makes those investments DEQ would allow Boardman to operate indefinitely. On the economic side, the PUC is charged with ensuring that any utility action on any plant is in the economic interest of ratepayers. This means the PUC won't let PGE shut it down in a manner that is too costly to customers. The goal at this point is to figure out how to coordinate both economic and environmental goals.

The DEQ and EQC have never suggested that the plant be shutdown in 2014. They are asking for pollution control investment by then that they believe is cost effective for a plant that will operate until 2040. DEQ has invited PGE to propose a different plan which is not based on operating the plant until 2040. Changing the closing date will change the DEQ rule. The question is by how much.

As ratepayer advocates we strongly support avoiding the $500 million additional investment. Investing hundreds of millions in coal plants today makes little sense when sometime in the future we will likely see coal plants being shut down due to their carbon pollution.

So, whats the upshot on all of this? At the start of the week, we were trying to convince PGE not to invest an additional $500 million on Boardman and keep it open indefinitely. By today, Friday, we are on a path to close Boardman. Again, this is a big deal. It was only a couple years ago that we were fighting PacifiCorp's proposal to build three new coal plants. We have largely flattened the growth of carbon emissions in the electricity sector, but they are not declining. We now have the possibility of starting to change that.

CUB agrees with Portland Mayor Sam Adams' take on the situation: "I am encouraged by Portland General Electric's announcement yesterday that it would seek to end global warming-inducing coal-fired energy production in Oregon by 2020." This is a big change and it’s happening because grassroots activists from all over the state are putting pressure on PGE to consider different alternatives. Those activists have been working very hard and they have changed the direction in a very positive manner. We thank them and encourage them to keep at it.

And we publicly thank PGE for listening to its customers and being willing to engage in a different conversation that we believe gives both ratepayers and the environment an opportunity for a much better future than we had even a couple of days ago.

Now we start figuring out how to take advantage of this new discussion and new opportunity.

Comments

  • marv (unverified)
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    This is an interesting story. In Payette, Idaho the plan is advancing to construct a nuclear plant. A zone change is all that is left to do. It is shovel ready.

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    Jeff, I agree completely.

  • GWeiss (unverified)
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    So, PGE has been violating standards of the Clean Air Act at Boardman for at least 20 years--does this mean they can continue to violate the Act for the next 20?

  • Linley (unverified)
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    A coal fired plant is indeed undesireable. But just shutting down Boardman won't help. Doing so may make Oregon's CO2 emissions smaller, but Boardman's emissions probably will just be replaced by emissions from another coal fired plant somewhere else, perhaps in Wyoming. To actually help, the Boardman plant must be replaced with something better.

    Further, why 10 more years? Why not sooner?

  • Stephen Amy (unverified)
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    It's really great to see some progress on this issue. Thanks to Jeff Bisonette for this article and thanks to all who have been sending letters about Boardman to PGE.

    As for the PUC, I hope the definitions of least risk/least cost can be understood in a new way, from here on out, as in the unbelieveable risks and costs associated with climate instability must be considered.

  • George Anonymuncule Seldes (unverified)
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    We don't have until 2020. Now that we're off the dime and PGE is no longer pretending that they can't leave coal, it's time to act like there's a global catastrophe headed our way if we don't slash carbon emissions -- because there is.

    PGE can build two or even three of the gas turbines that they've proposed to build (one of) at the Boardman Site -- so we're not closing Boardman, we'd just be producing even more power at far lower environmental damage with far less carbon risk, and we could do it by 2014 easily. The site is already in place, with transmission, and these gas turbines are essentially off-the-shelf power islands that you plug into the site with very little design work needed.

  • marv (unverified)
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    The Idaho Nuke will be online by 2020. There are six more on a fast track in the U.S.

    Oregon is getting natural gas pipelines to handle the imports and Coos Bay will have a terminal in addition to the one in the Columbia River.

    Let the celebration begin.

  • John Silvertooth (unverified)
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    Whatever PGE is doing is designed to advance the cause of corporate dividends. It's a long time to 2020 and when we get there it's only a delay or two or three or four and some more PUC "regulation" to get to 2040 or beyond.

    It seems they will be looking for reasons now not to invest in a cleaner Boardman but bedazzling all with some more huge windmills and slick TV.

    It's great for the Portland liberals to pat themselves on the back- it amazes me that CUB can come with a straight face and claim to have influeneced anything.

    Boardman is a disgrace to this state and should have been closed long ago but we have a string of spineless politicians in Salem.

    Boardman is the number one air polluter in Central Oregon and you come up here and see the filth and come back when Boardman is down- it is pathetic and foul.

    The utility industry in this country knows that 2/3 of our electricity is wasted- I don't mean just poorly used but utterly wasted by inefficent systems and poor management and transmission.

    Drink PGE's kool-aid if you want to but I don't take their press releases at face value.

  • John (unverified)
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    Wouldn't this make Oregon completely coal free? Or do some of our energy imports from other states come from coal? Are there any states in the US that use no coal (domestic production or imports)?

  • Jenny (unverified)
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    If PGE shuts down Boardman before TransAlta shuts down the Centralia coal plant in WA, then OR will be the first state without a coal plant within its borders. But to answer your question, John, we won't be coal-free at this point because we import electricity from other coal plants, mostly from Montana, Wyoming, and Utah. The PNW has the most potential of any region in the country to go coal free though. I look forward to the day I can flip on my CFL/LED lights and know they're not being powered by coal.

  • mp97303 (unverified)
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    What options are left for generating electricity?

    Hydro is out as it is bad for fish Wind is bad for migrating birds Solar is out due to a lack of water in the SW Nuclear is bad b/c 40 years ago people were stupid

    Am I going to have to power my lights by hand crank?

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    "Solar is out due to a lack of water in the SW"

    ?? explain the reasoning there, please?

    Thanks for this information. One area that doesn't get that much attention is conservation. And, I wonder, as someone wrote above, whether that includes improving transmission? The person who wrote about utilities wasting a lot of energy, is probably on track. I think we have a lot of room to improve in the area of transmission and in using less electricity and power, in general. And, that said, most power is used by business. So, an economy that relies on less business happening, a less-growth scenario, where we work less hours, consume less stuff, and spend more time in continuing education and hanging out with our friends and families seems a good direction to me. I'm more and more convinced that the whole ball game needs to change. That our current economy is what needs to change, not just closing one power plant, though that is, of course, useful - but the whole enchilada.

  • Richard (unverified)
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    While this is a very welcome development, Martha Stewart speak does not move the conversation forward. It isn't what you meant, it doesn't sound cool, so just stop it!

    As to how to make power, I guess Brazil and Iceland must be technically really far ahead of us, because they seem to be managing fine. The thing about power generation is that it is frigging bloody simple if you think outside the box of 10 seconds.

    How hard is it to run a wire between the ionosphere and ground level? Do you realize how much current could be captured that way? What about dark matter/energy research? It may not interact easily with normal visiable matter/energy, but at 70% of the universe, how can we say we have an energy crisis when we haven't even bothered to model the problem accurately, yet?

    Yeah, I know about ramp up time. Thing is, that was the "answer" 50 years ago. It doesn't cut it anymore. By the time they close it, the situation will be pretty bad, anyway. Yeah, hindsight is 2020, and by then this will seem a pretty flimsy accomplishment.

  • mp97303 (unverified)
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    "Solar is out due to a lack of water in the SW"

    ?? explain the reasoning there, please?

    According to an article I read recently, can't remember where, solar panels need to be kept clean to work at high efficiency. Since the SW USA is best place for large scale solar plant, they don't have the necessary water to keep them clean.

  • George Anonymuncule Seldes (unverified)
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    MP: natural gas -- much, much cleaner power, with a quarter of the CO2 ... no mercury, no polonium, no particulate discharge etc. That's the immediate answer. If we get off coal fast enough, we may be lucky enough to have to worry about what to do next. If we screw around pretending like we've got time to sit around debating how many angels can slam each other for their power preferences, then the whole thing's going to be moot.

  • Clackablog (unverified)
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    Richard asked on Jan 17, 2010 12:38:46 PM: {snip} _ How hard is it to run a wire between the ionosphere and ground _ level? Do you realize how much current could be captured that _ way? What about dark matter/energy research? It may not _ interact easily with normal visiable matter/energy, but at 70% _ of the universe, how can we say we have an energy crisis when _ we haven't even bothered to model the problem accurately, _ yet?</quote>

    A wire from the ionosphere and ground would require materials that don't yet exist yet. As for anything which requires research, well, it won't be on line and producing by 2020 to replace Boardman power.

    <h2>Instead, look at the solar power satellite which PG&E has contracted for, or Sterling Energy Systems contracts with SoCal Edison and SDG&E. NO unobtanium required for either.</h2>
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