PGE's Coal Plant Plan Meets Reality

Nick Engelfried

"PGE’s 2020 plan is coming apart at the seams. Now the Public Utilities Commission can finish it off."

PGE is hoping for a free pass to pollute outside the law at its Boardman Coal Plant. But last week a decision from Oregon’s Environmental Quality Commission indicated state agencies aren’t prepared to lightly adjust regulations to fit PGE’s wants. Apparently you can’t just re-write laws because they get in your way, even when you’re the Portland area’s largest utility. This message needs to be taken into account by the Oregon Public Utilities Commission (OPUC) when it decides whether PGE should use ratepayer money to prolong the life of the Boardman Coal Plant.

Until this year, PGE’s plan for Boardman was to keep the coal plant running indefinitely—at least until 2040, the furthest PGE’s projections for the future go. Environmentally Boardman is a disaster: it’s the single largest carbon polluter in Oregon, the state’s biggest emitter of mercury, and a major contributor to smog and acid rain in the Columbia Gorge. With public pressure mounting to close the plant, PGE offered a new proposal early this year. The company would close Boardman…eventually. But first it wants permission to pollute illegally for another ten years.

In PGE’s amended Integrated Resource Plan, now going before the Public Utilities Commission for approval, PGE adopted the “2020 plan” for Boardman. According to the 2020 plan, Boardman would close in 2020—but only if PGE can secure a waiver for pollution controls required on the plant in 2015. Should regulators fail to tailor the law to PGE’s wants, the 2020 plan gives the company permission backtrack to square one, keeping Boardman open indefinitely.

The Department of Environmental Quality mandated the new pollution controls after finding that Boardman has been violating the Clean Air Act for decades. According to the DEQ, PGE can either clean up the plant before 2015, or transition to cleaner energy in 2014 and eliminate the need for expensive controls. The 2014 plan is the obvious winner not only for the environment, but also for ratepayers whose money shouldn’t be put into prolonging a coal plant’s life. Yet PGE refuses to take the 2014 plan seriously, and continues pushing for 2020. It’s the Public Utilities Commission’s job to decide whether the 2020 plan makes sense for PGE’s ratepayers. And after Thursday’s Environmental Quality Commission decision, it’s clearer than ever this isn’t the case.

On Thursday the EQC voted unanimously to reject PGE’s first request for pollution waivers. There’s still a lot of negotiating to take place between PGE, the EQC, and the DEQ, but what this means is environmental regulators aren’t willing to lightly waive pollution controls required by state and federal law. It seems increasingly improbable PGE will be able to sidestep these controls, so approving the 2020 plan would likely commit ratepayers to forking out money to upgrade Boardman.

The 2020 plan comes with many strings attached; and lurking in the background is the provision that if things don’t work out just PGE’s way, the company could go back to operating Boardman indefinitely. With a much-needed federal price on carbon almost certainly in the pipeline, this would be the worst deal of all for ratepayers. In the long term, burning coal will become an expensive activity. It’s therefore in the best interest of ratepayers to transition to cleaner fuel sources as quickly as possible.

The Environmental Quality Commission should continue to stand its ground, and require PGE follow the law. The Oregon Public Utilities Commission should recognize the 2020 plan as unrealistic, and reject PGE’s proposal to tie ratepayer money to dirty coal. On Wednesday the OPUC will hold a public hearing to help decide whether to approve the 2020 plan. The Commission will doubtless hear PGE trot out its usual talking points; but they’ll also hear from environmental and consumer groups who want to see Boardman shut down by 2014 or sooner. It will be the Commission’s job to sort out fact from fiction, and deconstruct PGE’s alternate universe in which utilities get to change laws they don’t feel like following.

PGE’s 2020 plan is coming apart at the seams. Now the Public Utilities Commission can finish it off, and mandate a plan that’s in step with environmental requirements, and truly in line with the best interests of PGE ratepayers.

Comments

  • (Show?)

    Transparency statement: I'm a volunteer for the Oregon Sierra Club's Beyond Coal campaign. In this post I speak only for myself.

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    "Environmentally Boardman is a disaster: it’s the single largest carbon polluter in Oregon, the state’s biggest emitter of mercury, and a major contributor to smog and acid rain in the Columbia Gorge. With public pressure mounting to close the plant, PGE offered a new proposal early this year. The company would close Boardman…eventually. But first it wants permission to pollute illegally for another ten years."

    Can you provide the citations for these facts, or a link to the information? I'd like to see it.

    Thanks!

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      Jason: NEDC put together a fact sheet a couple years ago on this topic. Though the info. isn't current, no larger polluter has come along in recent years to supplant PGE Boardman. http://legacy.lclark.edu/org/nedc/pge.html

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      Hi Jason,

      Here are a couple links with more info about Boardman as a pollution source:

      http://www.oregonlive.com/opinion/index.ssf/2009/01/its_time_to_close_the_boardman.html

      http://daily.sightline.org/daily_score/archive/2009/12/15/a-lump-of-coal-in-your-outlet

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      Your first clue that it is bogus is the claim of an effect on the Columbia Gorge, which is 50 miles to the West - UP WIND of the Boardman plant.

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    I am for closing Boardman (or cleaning all the carbon from its emissions) as soon as possible. That said, I've thought that PGE was offering a pretty good deal. I don't think rate payers should be stuck with paying off the half billion investment to control haze causing pollution. That would be a big waste of money.

    As for actually attacking climate change, the big problem is China and India. I'm disappointed that Oregon's environmental movement has not supported effort to engage those countries through our educational programs - like more Mandarin in the public schools and having local school districts pay for high school students to spend a year abroad in those countries - or developing even more creative strategies to get China and India off coal. Closing Boardman is a very small drop in a very big bucket.

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      Hi David,

      I'm afraid I must disagree about the 2020 plan being a good deal for Oregon. If you find out your neighbor's been robbing you, you don't call it a "good deal" if they agree to stop in ten years. You just want them to follow the law, or pay the price. PGE's been violating clean air laws for decades, and it's time for them to clean up their act.

      As for China and India, there's no doubt these countries are major carbon emitters, and I certainly would like to see them cut back on fossil fuel consumption. But most of us in Oregon have little if any influence over Chinese and Indian politics, whereas we can have a great impact in our home state. By retiring Oregon's only coal plant by 2014, Oregon can set an example for the rest of the US. By following Oregon's lead, the US can set an example for the world - China and India included.

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        As I understand the situation, there is currently no requirement that Boardman clean up its carbon emissions or close. Current laws permit it to do so forever. New laws could either require it to clean out the carbon or pay for the right to emit carbon. But that's in the speculative future.

        Meanwhile, there is a requirement that around 2015 that they clean up their haze causing pollutants. That will cost about half a billion dollars that we, ratepayers, will pay.

        If you can get a deal to close Boardman sooner than 2020, great. If you create a situation that ends up costing a half billion dollars and Boardman is still emitting carbon, that's bad.

        I don't like the risk of the later, so I like the deal PGE has put on the table.

        As for India and China, I think Oregon could magnify its example setting influence if we were more engaged with them. I don't think closing Boardman itself will be that significant. It is the deployment of alternatives sources at scale that will be significant. Some of those alternatives are currently being more rapidly developed in China and India. More educational engagement could accelerate alternative energy deployment on both sides of the Pacific.

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      Basing your call to close Boardman based on this article is like basing your opinion of Jews on "The Protocol of the Elders of Zion."

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    HOw exactly should PGE offset energy production from Boardman via-cleaner production capacity within 4 years?

    I am all for closing it down and/or shifting to a cleaner energy source. Tell us what the solution is that produces that capacity in a cleaner way and can actually be brought online in the next 4 years (and pencils out for ratepayers).

    What is the specifics for a viable road-map post-Boardman?

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      Hi Mitchell, Brian,

      I realize why you'd want a cut-and-dried, neatly spelled out answer to the question of how to replace Boardman. Unfortunately it's impossible to give such an answer - but that's because there are multiple options on the table. Renewables and energy efficiency must certainly be part of the mix for replacing Boardman - preferably, these two options should replace as much of the energy from the coal plant as possible. But if efficiency and renewables can't completely replace Boardman by 2014, some of the difference could be made up using domestic natural gas. That would be better than coal for ratepayers because domestic natural gas has a smaller carbon footprint than coal (and so looks better in a future of carbon regulation), and emits far fewer other pollutants (and so wouldn't require the pollution controls PGE is supposed to install on Boardman in 2015).

      Of course, some people will question whether PGE can get enough of its own new energy generating infrastructure to replace Boardman up and running by 2014. I personally think they could do it - but even if I'm wrong, that's not a major hurdle. PGE could easily enter into a "power purchase agreement" with another utility for a few years, until it can completely replace Boardman itself. Other utilities have already indicated they'd be willing to look at setting up such agreements.

      Of course the benefit of all this would be that we could eliminate Oregon's largest carbon source on a timescale that might actually do some good, while protecting ratepayers from having their bills tied to increasingly expensive coal power. And oh yeah - it also would mean PGE would be following the law.

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      My favorite answer is when they recommend wind generators, which the same people will not allow in the Columbia Gorge - where it would be useful and profitable.

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    There you go getting all rational again, Mitch. Damn good question though. What do we do in the interim for base electricity? Coal, natural gas & modern nuclear technology are bad as are existing hydroelectric projects. So, powering the grid is all about solar, wind, geothermal and our own sense of personal satisfaction then?

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    Nick and Mark, thanks for the links. Very helpful!

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    David, the issue is mercury, not CO2; that is just not part of the picture here. The issue of haze in the Gorge is also part of the consideration, but just not as crucial as the Hg issue.

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    If you're still looking for GHG numbers for Boardman, you can read Environment Oregon's national report at http://www.environmentoregon.org/uploads/3c/22/3c22bfda9778f49da4787cbd9f4c9964/Americas-Biggest-Polluters-Report-Web.pdf.

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    "...state’s biggest emitter of mercury, and a major contributor to smog and acid rain in the Columbia Gorge." There may be more ignorant comments about the plant in Boardman, but that one takes the cake. The prevailing wind is FROM the WEST and the gorge is 50 miles to the WEST of the plant. That comment should cause the whole article to be called into question, including any figures about mercury emission.

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      Hi John, Actually the claim about the Gorge is based on sound studies, and I have little doubt the Department of Environmental Quality would tell you much the same thing I have on that score. Please see one of the reports here: http://legacy.lclark.edu/org/nedc/objects/GorgeFactSheet.pdf

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