Two good ones at the O

Carla Axtman

The Oregonian has several very good pieces this weekend which highlight some pretty interesting economics. Both happen to have rural Oregonian settings.

First is a Saturday piece by Dana Tims about Estacada, a town moving with some success from a timber-related to light manufacturing economy:

When Oregon's timber-dependent economy tanked in the early 1980s, few towns felt the blow more than Estacada. Log trucks that once rolled through town at the rate of one a minute all but disappeared, and half of downtown's storefronts went empty.

Now, as the economy takes another plunge, this town of 2,900 seems better positioned to weather the decline, in part because of a series of public-private partnerships on land set aside for light industry.

Obstacles to further expansion remain, such as a lack of readily trained local workers and the 20-minute drive time from Interstate 205. But economic development experts say Estacada's evolution from timber capital to fledgling manufacturing haven offers lessons for towns struggling to retain and create jobs of their own.

More here.

Today's Sunday Oregonian has an above-the-fold front pager on the coal-fired power plant in Boardman. This piece by Ted Sickinger examines the problems that PGE faces with the plant. It's also a look at the economic pull and tug by corporate utilities, the market and environmental regulators/organizations. Here's what PGE has to say about the plant. Friends of the Columbia Gorge and the Sierra Club aren't impressed.

  • Dave Porter (unverified)

    Regarding the Boardman coal plant story, one of the key sentences is “’The worst thing possible for ratepayers would be to spend a half billion dollars, then to have them turn around and close this because of carbon constraints,’ said Bob Jenks, executive director of the Citizens' Utility Board of Oregon.” I’ve blogged here (“Going After Boardman Backwards”) that we do not seem to have the right decision making process in place. We need to decide on Boardman’s carbon emissions future before or at the same time as we consider investing in clean up for other emissions. $472 million is too much to waste.

    The larger question of whether Boardman should close rest on the issue of whether there is such a thing as “clean coal” and, if there is, how much will it cost (and how those costs might compare to other clean alternatives).

    The search for economic “clean coal” should not be dismissed as a fairy tale or irrelevant. With China adding an additional traditional coal plant or so per week, we are all going to live with the consequences of what happens there. Unless we can help China clean up its coal plants, or they just do it on their own, the globe will warm up and there will be significant climate change. China has officially launched its first post-combustion capture coal plant (see here and my post here).

  • George Anonymuncule Seldes (unverified)

    Coal isn't clean from any standpoint -- ask the people in Tenn. and all the people in WV and KY who are seeing their mountains shoved into their streams and rivers.

    The "clean coal" dodge is the low-tar cigarette of energy policy--completely meaningless but great PR and an excellent delaying tactic.

    Worse, Oregon is getting ready to start another coal plant up -- in Nyssa, Snake River Ethanol plans to start burning coal to get in on the sweet subsidies for turning midwest corn and Wyoming coal into liquid fuels for SUV.

    Oregon has far more than 600 MW of untapped conservation potential. The legislatures should set a firm deadline of 1/1/11 for an end to coal combustion in Oregon without full carbon sequestration.

  • mlw (unverified)

    When are people going to realize that nuclear is the only power source that can reliably generate the needed energy with a small carbon footprint? People complain about radiation, but nowhere in the Boardman article is it noted that burning all that coal releases substantially more radioactive material into the environment than generating the same amount of energy in a nuclear reactor. Wind, solar, tidal, etc...all good ideas over the long haul, but not something we can accomplish in the time frame we need to be talking about to get global warming under control. But, I guess if you live with your head in the sand, it doesn't matter that advocating against nuclear and for solar and wind is de facto advocating for more coal. When will we stop being so pie in the sky and get real about this?

  • John D (unverified)

    Interesting how on one hand you can say you like the movement from a timber economy to light manufacturing in Estacada but on the other hand call for increasing electricity rates and fuel prices to such a degree to make such industry unprofitable.

    What do you think is going to happen? Do you think the average Oregonian especially ones that you have driven out of business or off-shore are going to dig deeper to pay for your little power trip?

    With businesses all over the country going bankrupt do you think that PGE is exempt from all that? You need to lay off the environmentally friendly tweak if you do.

    If you lay too much in the way of expensive mandates on them there is always the chance that they would look at their books, pull the plug and go into bankruptcy. What will happen then?

    I think that in that case there would be a whole bunch of really pissed off people with torches and pitchfork looking for someone to ride out of town.

    I will be more than happy to point them your way. Butyou won't be alone. There's Gov Ted and his band of wealthy donors who still plan on shoving their Global Warming agenda down our throats. He doesn't care what the unemployment rate is, none of those people donated to his election and the environmentalists did.

  • Dave Porter (unverified)

    George. A question: are you making a distinction between “clean coal” and “coal with full carbon sequestration?” I thought carbon sequestration to be one of the technologies that could make coal power “clean.”

    MLW: My understanding is that nuclear power without enormous government subsidies is just too expensive. For example, here’s a quote from Amory Lovins’ 2005 paper “ Nuclear Power: economics and climate-protection potential:” (here)

    “All the meager nuclear orders nowadays come from centrally planned electricity systems, because despite strong official support and greatly increased U.S. subsidies, nuclear power’s bad economics make it unfinanceable in the private capital market. Official studies compare new nuclear plants only with coal- or gas-fired central stations. But all three kinds of central stations are uncompetitive with windpower and some other renewables, combined-heat-and power (cogeneration), and efficient use of electricity, all compared on a consistent accounting basis:

    “Efforts to make nuclear plants appear competitive with central coal or gas plants by enlarging nuclear subsidies or taxing carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions are futile, because windpower and some other renewables, cogeneration, and technologies for wringing more work from each kilowatt-hour will still win in the marketplace—by margins far too great for new reactor technologies or further-streamlined siting and regulation to overcome, even in principle.”

  • AimeeG (unverified)

    My objection to coal and nuclear are that they are "lazy" technologies. Coal energy comes from the photosynthesized sunlight of plants that lived millions of years ago. Rather than digging up the earth to find those historic depsosits, the lazy way, we could directly use today's sunlight energy. That requires a lot more work and new technology. Nuclear energy is fission energy. It is inherently unnatural. It is not the "energy of the stars"; fission occurs naturally nowhere! We do that because it's more difficult to make fusion viable. I call that lazy because the availability of the option seems to have kept us from cracking the fusion nut. Considering how close fusion reactors where to feasibility in the 1970s, the progress to date is unacceptable. Both would not be so difficult if they were seen as the goal, rather than simply a required adjunct to industrial society. Energy is still seen as a commodity to be procured at the cheapest rate, which is wrong. Energy is neither created nor destroyed, it can only be managed, like physiology.

  • mlw (unverified)

    I'm not a nuke zealot - I know that it is a bridge technology until green technologies can be made more viable. (And, good people that they are, the Rocky Mountain Institute people are not exactly non-partisan.) As the president-elect recognizes, time lines are not an insignificant factor here. Wind and solar have significant drawbacks - solar does not adequate address the load and storage problems, while wind takes a long time to build and probably couldn't meet the increasing demand. As for nuclear being a "lazy" technology, it does occur naturally. Atoms fission all the time. What nuclear does is speed up and concentrate the reaction. The usual arguments against it revolve around 1) safety and 2) the waste. The safety issue is largely addressed by modern reactor designs that simply cannot melt down. However, people still hyperventilate about the danger of nuclear without caring to review the literature. The waste is a problem and I'm not a fan of Yucca Mountain. Yucca will probably eventually open, but it arose from a political process, not a scientific one. That being said, it is still safe, at least a heck of a lot safer than leaving the waste where it is, which is the current "solution."

    What irritates me most about this endless argument is that the people are unwilling to education themselves on the science. We live in a society that is very culturally literate - who can't name three apocalypse movies involving nuclear energy? - but scientifically illiterate. They don't understand the various energy options and the energy demands of society. They prefer to say, "Oh, we'll solve that all with solar," or "Energy cells are just a couple years off," blithely ignoring the realities of the situation and electing politicians who are similarly scientifically illiterate.

  • Joanne Rigutto (unverified)

    Regarding the biofuels issue, it's not just ethanol for SUVs, it's also biodiesel for Trimet buses, the City of Portland's vehicles, etc. I would hazard a guess, that if you looked at how much fuel is used, it's probably pretty close, the use for personal transportation and commercial transportation/manufacturing. A lot of diesel is used in farming and food production - growing, harvesting, transporting, processing, transporting to warehouses, transporting to the store, etc. While a lot of goods are transported via rail in this country, it all has to go from the rail yard to the store, and a lot of things are transported truck only too.

    Think about how many miles you put on your car, or SUV if you will, and then think about that big rig with the 500 gallon tank running 5-7 days a week.

    I don't think that electicity, which is what nuclear and coal fired power plants produce - is going to replace diesel. Something needs to, and I don't think that biofuels will either. This is just as big a problem as the other issues adressed here.

  • (Show?)

    Joanne: The prime candidate, as I understand, for replacing diesel other than biofuels is natural gas. We already have and use such vehicles. T. Boone Pickens is an advocate of wind and natural gas to replace foreign oil. For example, see the Pickens Plan here. I do not think we have the technology yet to build large electric vehicles.

  • George Anonymuncule Seldes (unverified)

    @ Dave: What I am calling for is a law for coal similar to the law that says you can't site a nuke until you have figured out how to dispose of your waste safely. The fact that there is no way to dispose of the waste products of coal combustion safely --- either the mercury, radioactive materials, CO2, or coal ash --- simply means we have to stop burning coal, which we already know. (If we were able to trap CO2 emissions from coal we would have to build a collection and distribution and storage system many times larger than the pipelines used to distribute petroleum. The cost burden is such that it will make coal combustion prohibitively expensive -- as it should be.)

    @ Joanna: Snake River Ethanol has nothing to do with agrodiesel. BTW, the tiny amount of waste oil turned into biodiesel is a good thing -- it's about a gallon per year per Oregonian. All the rest is a disaster.

  • Locutus of Aloha (unverified)

    ...scientifically illiterate...

    Whaddaya mean, illiterate? That's a peer-reviewed study, isn't it?

  • Jim (unverified)

    Let's be very clear - because here is what the coal and utility industries are spending $40 million on: CONFUSE the public.

    Coal is NOT clean. CLEAN COAL has no more meaning than HEALTHY CIGARETTES.

    Coal has enormous mining impacts.

    Coal has enormous mining waste disposal impacts as we saw this past weekend with a devastating spill in Tennessee.

    Coal has enormous criteria pollutant impacts - though many of them can be reduced, the volumes of emissions are still huge.

    Coal has enormous toxic emission issues - some can be cleaned up, but coal plants are by far the largest source of mercury, arsenic, etc....

    And coal is an unmitigated disaster in terms of global warming. This fact is beyond a doubt - no plant-scale sequestration is anywhere near commercialization, and the industry even admits it is at least 20 years off, if ever.

    Go to for a concise explanation of the CLEAN COAL disinformation campaign.

    PGE has a dirty coal plant. It can be made marginally cleaner, but it still will be by far the dirtiest source of electricity in Oregon. It may become obsolescent within 10-20 years due to carbon constraints.

    The $1,000,000,000 PGE will ask ratepayers to throw at this white elephant is another Trojan in the making. The billion dollars will go much farther if invested in energy efficiency, and the Governor will introduce a good set of bills in 2009 that will start reducing the need for Boardman's power so that it can be retired BEFORE the ratepayers buy another pig with lipstick.

  • Unrepentant Liberal (unverified)

    Of course the "O" has gotten better....... David Reinhardt quit. Improvement by subtraction.

  • Dave Porter (unverified)

    @ Jim: What bill(s) will the Governor introduce that will retired Boardman before the possible $472 million upgrade mentioned in the Oregonian article? And what strategies do you suggest to convince China to stop building coal plants? (Since, to me, part of the rational for investing more rapidly in coal cleaning technology is develop methods China can use. They have a lot of cheap coal. It may be easier to get them to clean it than to shift to renewable forms of power. And if China does not shift, plant palm tree along the Willamette, it is going to get warmer here.)

  • George Anonymuncule Seldes (unverified)

    @ Dave P: China may have a lot less coal than we all used to think (as may the world). They are already importing coal -- from us, no less, coal mined with federal subsidies.

    As for waiting to figure out how to deal with China's problems before we deal with our own, how is that a good strategy? If we are to return to a science-based policy regime (in contrast to the faith-based regime that has been in power these last eight years), then it starts with doing all that we can to reduce emissions -- and that means NO.MORE.COAL. We are in a much better position to persuade China and India (and Germany and ...) to stop burning coal if we drop the shovel from our hands first.

  • Jim (unverified)


    Governor K has a package of bills that will HELP transition Oregon away form fossil fuels. His climate package is announced at:

    The bills that will help reduce the need for Boardman's power include 'cap and trade', net zero emission buildings (by 2030), expanded renewables, and an upcoming energy efficiency financing district package.

    We cannot necessarily stop China from building coal plants in the short run, but we need to demonstrate NOW those renewable and efficiency deployment paths that obviate the need for them IMMEDIATELY. In the long run, I believe support of carbon capture and sequestration could be useful - but that really has no impact on what we need to do today, and that includes trying to pull China (or use trade agreements) into the low carbon age.

  • Dave Porter (unverified)

    @ Jim,

    (1)From what I know of the Governor’s cap-and-trade proposal (somewhat limited), the proposal would not make it clear to PGE or the public what the useful economic life of Boardman would be in time for PGE (or anyone) to factor that into the decision on the investment of the $472 million in the Oregonian article. Cap-and-trade, as I understand it, does not give a definite future costs to carbon emissions, like a carbon emissions tax might. Cap-and-trade sets declining-over-time carbon emission caps and creates some competitive market processes for carbon emitters to buy and trade the rights to emit carbon. The easy assumption is that the cost of carbon emissions will go up. The tricky assumptions are by how much and when, which might make all the difference on the $472 million decision.

    (2) Forecasting demand for electricity is going to get more complex. A big variable is how fast we shift away from gasoline powered cars and to what other type of power we shift to for them. As for types, we could shift to electric, natural gas, hydrogen, or other powered cars. If we shift to electric vehicles, that should substantially influence the need for Boardman. As for time, we could take forever (which is what I fear our political system can handle), or we could have a substantial, revenue-neutral gas tax this year, which I what I would prefer (see here and generally on my blog). I note that neither Governor Kulongoski nor the legislative Democrats, to my knowledge, are proposing a substantial, revenue-neutral gas tax to get us off of supporting foreign petro-states opposed to our values and to bring that money home.

  • jim (unverified)

    Dave, you are correct that cap and trade in itself won't alone send the signal to retire Boardman. In California, for instance c&t will only get 15% of the CO2 reductions - other policies will get the other 85%.

    So Gov K's package will add to the policy environment where efficiency, renewables, outside power contracts, low C natural gas have a fairer fight against coal. PGE is looking at a series of supply curves for all of these options - and given the potential regulatory environment (the OPUC considers up to $100 per ton plausible)for coal, coal is probably the riskiest supply option going forward. That is exactly the reason that OPUC stopped Pacificorp from investing in new coal plants in Utah 2 years ago. The situation for coal is even less tenable today.

  • George Anonymuncule Seldes (unverified)

    There is no need to spend any more time on figuring out how to burn more coal in the US -- if Helena, Montana can slash its energy use, anyplace can. All that is needed is the will to do so.

  • Zarathustra (unverified)

    I think George and AimeeG's points should be well taken. We haven't tried hard enough on solar, etc., and the attitudes expressed seem to dismiss that outright as too hard. I think that is the point. It's like people are waiting for serendipity to save the day. We're going to be figuring out how to put more data on a DVD and...look at that, a spin-off technology that solves our energy needs. I would agree it has to be made the goal, for its own sake and not seen as a commodity to be had at the cheapest cost.

    I don't get the response about the decay of radioactive nuclei being like SNF. Comparing spontaneous nuclear fusion of heavy nuclei to the decay states of unstable atoms is like comparing the relationship between lions and hyenas on the savanna with the Cold War.

    Carbon sequestration makes the point as well, I think. The main problem with these technologies is they use almost as much energy as they produce. That's the problem with nuclear fusion. I may be adding meaning that wasn't intended, but I think the point is that if we're going to concentrate on that part of the problem, why not concentrate on the really promising technologies, rather than those that are limping along.


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