Closing the Boardman Power Plant

In general, we agree with Sierra Club that the plant should close early. The reality of this discussion is that we're not debating whether the plant should close or operate indefinitely, we're disagreeing about the most reasonable way to close it and transition to cleaner resources.

By Steven Corson of Portland, Oregon. Steven works for Portland General Electric in corporate communications.

(Editor's note: We've had a lot of discussion lately about the Boardman power plant. PGE asked for an opportunity to weigh in, and we're happy to see them join the conversation here at BlueOregon.)

Regarding last week's hearing on Portland General Electric's resource plan, including the proposed 2020 plan for the Boardman Power Plant:

The Oregon Public Utility Commission specifically asked us not to make an official statement or presentation at the hearing, though a strong contingent of our supporters, workers, customers and community members did choose to speak. We were very pleased by the many 2020 Boardman advocates who attended and offered their perspectives to the Commission, even knowing that the meeting was held at the Sierra Club's request and they worked feverishly to pack it.

If we had offered a statement, there are a number of points we would have made, including the following:

1) Our coalition is very diverse and includes renewables advocates, residential, commercial and industrial customer advocates, low-income customer advocates, labor leaders, individual customers, Boardman and Morrow County residents, chambers of commerce, and other business associations.

2) Our 2020 plan was an attempt to balance costs and clean air protection. First, we proposed closing this workhorse, baseload coal plant 20 years early, which would bring emissions from the plant, including greenhouse gas emissions down to ZERO in the year 2020. We are the first utility in the country to propose closing a baseload plant early, and we're proud of that. Second, the 2020 plan is less expensive for customers than the 2014 option by at least $600 million. This means that customers' rates will NOT need to be raised to capture that $600 million between now and 2014. Yet the 2020 option still achieves 50 percent reduction in NOx and a 90 percent reduction in mercury starting in 2011.

3) Closing 20 years early in 2020 is our preferred approach. It gives us a reasonable timeframe to transition to new resources. This means we have time to build new generating facilities to replace Boardman AND it means we have some time to let technology develop, like new renewable technologies, so they can be considered as part of the Boardman replacement mix. Having as many options as possible to replace Boardman is good for customers and the environment. Closing in 2014 would limit our options.

In general, we agree with Sierra Club that the plant should close early. The reality of this discussion is that we're not debating whether the plant should close or operate indefinitely, we're disagreeing about the most reasonable way to close it and transition to cleaner resources. Closing 20 years early brings emissions from the plant to zero in 2020 and does it in a way that sharply reduces haze causing pollution in the interim, reduces greenhouse gas emissions and helps keep customers' bills reasonable while we bring new replacement plants on line (an important consideration, since the existing need for new resources is already causing upward pressure on our prices, independent of what we do with Boardman).

We would also agree that it’s important to get the facts right. For instance, contrary to an unsupported assertion made in a recent BlueOregon posting from a Sierra Club volunteer, the Department of Environmental Quality isn't requiring new controls after finding that the Boardman Plant has been violating the Clean Air Act for decades. To our knowledge, DEQ has never issued such a finding. The potential emissions control strategies we're discussing now are the result of new requirements that did not apply when Boardman was built or in the years since. PGE took pains when the plant was constructed to confirm with both DEQ and the federal EPA that the plant was designed and built in compliance with all applicable state and federal laws, and we’ve operated it since then within the permits regulators told us were necessary.

In that same spirit, PGE has not requested "waivers" from the law as we develop emissions control options for Boardman, but proposed its 2020 closure plan for Boardman as an appropriate, cost-effective strategy to fully comply with state and federal law while allowing a reasonable transition time for new resources to be developed and brought online to serve our customers’ need for electricity. We'll evaluate the alternative proposals DEQ issued this week with those same goals in mind.

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    As I've read the news stories, it appears the PGE plan simply doesn't comply with America's laws to cut air pollution. That's what EPA found, and DEQ found.

    Given air pollution leads to thousands if not tens of thousands of premature deaths each year, and the plant is Oregon's largest contributor to the climate crisis that is projected to cost us 5 to 20% of our GDP, PGE's attempts to fiddle while Rome burns are simply irresponsible.

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    The Oregonian reported on this just two days ago.

    In their story, reporter Ted Sickinger notes "Oregon's environmental regulators laid out three new options Monday for the shutdown of Portland General Electric Co.'s coal-fired power plant in Boardman, all of them involving an earlier closure date, or significantly more expensive pollution controls, than the utility proposed earlier this year to comply with federal clean air rules."

    The story quotes ratepayer advocate Bob Jenks from the Citizens Utility Board commenting on the challenge of trying to pick among PGE's initial proposals stating "I don't know, based on this, what the best option is, but I do worry that we haven't done enough here to take the 2040 option off the table, and that's the one I like the least."

    The Oregonian also adds comments from Sierra Club representative Cesia Kearns who notes that "the DEQ's proposals were an acknowledgement that coal is outdated, and that the plant should be shut earlier than 2020."

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    so let me see if I can summarize your arguments that you have helpfully numbered: 1. some of our best friends are environmentalists/labor etc

    1. we are thinking about doing this thing before any other utility is thinking about it so we should get a pass. And if we don't get a pass, it's gonna cost you customers a s--tton if you try to make us do it a day before we're ready

    2. It's more convenient for us to do it when we want to, sorry about the climate change in the meantime though.

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    So, what are we suggesting as an immediate replacement for this coal-fired power plant?

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      Hi Brian,

      Since your concern about how to replace Boardman is something that comes up a lot, I'm pasting here my response to a similar question on one of my previous BlueOregon posts. I wrote this before the latest DEQ decision, so some of the dates mentioned may need to be updated. Other than that I think this still holds up:

      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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    It's great to see PGE give their side of the story! I'd like to start by addressing the claim about "getting the facts right." I'm not a lawyer, but my understanding is Boardman was grandfathered in under the Clean Air Act, and so wasn't held to the same standards as similar coal plants. Yet significant upgrades early in the plant's life should have caused it to lose this status years ago; in other words, while it may be the DEQ that deserves the blame for letting this go unnoticed so long, Boardman has been polluting for years out of compliance with rules it should have been held to.

    PGE’s “2020 plan” (which includes an option for operating the plant until 2040) proposed pollution controls not up to the standard which the DEQ, among others, believes the federal EPA will require. Now the DEQ has put forward three possible early closure scenarios for Boardman, all of which involve either closing the plant earlier than 2020, or installing more pollution controls than PGE planned. Yet PGE is still trying to get off the hook. At last week’s Public Utilities Commission hearing, I had a conversation with a representative of PGE (unfortunately I did not get his name) in which I specifically asked if he denied PGE is trying to obtain pollution waivers. He did not.

    I’d also like to ask PGE some questions about the company’s Integrated Resource Plan (IRP):

    1) How does PGE justify its unreasonably high projections for future natural gas prices? PGE’s future gas scenarios predict much higher prices than those forecasted by the Northwest Power and Conservation Council, among other bodies. These high projections of course help PGE’s 2020 plan look better (as compared to a 2014 closure date), because natural gas is a fuel that could replace all or part of Boardman.

    2) Why hasn’t PGE done more work to assess all options for replacing Boardman? The company’s IRP assumes Boardman would be replaced with a new gas-fired unit, but that’s only one of multiple options available. PGE hasn’t shown conclusively it is the best option, or the cheapest.

    3) Why has PGE failed to take Power Purchase Agreements seriously as a temporary means to replace Boardman? Power Purchase Agreements could ensure customers are provided with electricity, even in the event PGE can’t get new electricity generating infrastructure up as quickly as I think they could. Yet PGE has not adequately embraced this possibility.

    I stand by my argument that ten years is much too long to wait to have Boardman cleaned up. The 2020 plan is inconsistent with Oregon’s carbon reduction goals and with federal clean air guidelines (a point the DEQ seems to agree with). PGE is wasting resources by continuing to pursue the 2020 plan. Installing expensive pollution controls makes little sense for a plant that will be retired soon anyway, so the only responsible thing is to take the Boardman Coal Plant offline well before 2020.

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      It is obvious you have a passion for this subject. While reading several of your posts the one question that remains unanaswered is HOW do you propose the 40% base power load be replaced in the next 10 years?

      Certainly wind,solar and tidal generation will make up maybe 5%, but what of the rest? And please tell us how paying consumers $0.55/kwh of energy makes sense in this scenario.

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        Hi Kurt, Please see my response to Brian's comment above, in which I explain some of PGE's options for replacing Boardman. Also, Boardman does not supply 40% of PGE's power; I think you're thinking of the percentage of Oregon's overall electricity that comes from coal (much of it from out-of-state coal plants).

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    PGE is a major polluter. The impacts of GHG and other toxic emissions from the Boardman plant are damaging the well-being of our communities and the ecosystems on which we rely. The problems of pollution impacting our environment and personal health are even greater at the sites where coal mining is taking place to supply Boardman with fuel. At some point we must get beyond the conversation about what is best for PGE financially and how rates will be affected for customers. The reality is that we, as PGE's customer base, will always be forced to pay whatever they put down in our monthly bills. I am not advocating for higher energy rates, but I have to believe that the the parents of children suffering from health problems associated with air pollution generated at Boardman, the even greater health impacts for communities where the coal is being mined, the habitat clean up required at both mining and burning sites, and the efforts to address global crises caused by climate change carry a financial impact that goes well beyond the cost of PGE purchasing/developing infrastructure to limit their emissions and the rate increases that those changes will create for PGE customers. This transition will cost money, but every day that the shutting down of Boardman is delayed, still more financial burden will fall on impacted communities and the non-profit and tax-funded agencies responsible for cleaning up PGE's mess.

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    The fact of the matter is that the EQC does not believe that PGE's 2020 plan will meet state and federal standards. Therefore, the 2020 is the riskiest option for ratepayers.

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    So why can't Boardman shut down in the 2014 era and start now to build a replacement natural gas plant? Use natural gas until other options can provide more muscle.

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      Why build a whole new gas plant when Boardman could be converted to natural gas as an intermidiate step? Then, while effective and efficient alternatives are developed and brought on line Baordman can be put to rest.

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    PGE's statement shows that the company does not care about ratepayers health, or the health of the planet. That's not their fault, but throwing out a bogus figure of $600 million is nothing more than a dirty scare tactic. That number should be much, much lower, possibly even 0. And even if it wasn't, the cost of burning coal without proper pollution controls for an extra 6 years would certainly fall harder on ratepayers. What about the rest of the NOX, and what about the sulfur and particulates. What about the huge amount of C02 being released???

    It is a tough battle when the governing agencies do not account for the real cost of something, but even so, a very strong case has been made for 2014 economically, and environmentally.

    I am astounded PGE has "renewable advocates". This coal plant is only blocking renewable energy from taking its place. Please PGE, tell us who you've bought out!!

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