Now is the Time to Move Oregon Beyond Coal

Nick Engelfried

If PGE shifts to cleaner energy sources by 2014 instead of six years later, students in Oregon will win

The younger generation of today will have to deal with the worst consequences of any flawed energy policy. Yet students and young people have traditionally had relatively small influence over the course of state-level energy policy. In Oregon that may be changing, not a moment too soon for one of the most important energy decisions in years.

Until now students have lacked a legitimate vehicle to give organized input into energy decisions. While workers have their unions and corporations their business alliances, students have lacked a similar vehicle to voice their concerns. It’s ironic, because those in college today have more to win or lose out energy policy than almost any other demographic.

Enter an initiative spearheaded by ten student body governments in Oregon which this year passed resolutions urging a transition away from the state’s only in-state coal plant, on a faster timescale than that proposed by the plant’s utility operator. Student governments across the state ask that Boardman Coal be replaced by cleaner energy sources by the year 2014 or before. Such a move would eliminate the state’s largest source of greenhouse emissions, and allow the plant’s operator to avoid expensive pollution controls. It would also be one giant step toward our clean energy future, and the thousand of jobs that come with it.

Yet Boardman is operated by Portland General Electric—a private utility whose Wall Street investors have little interest in creating green jobs for Oregon. PGE’s “Boardman 2020 Plan” proposes burning coal at the plant at least until 2020, and possibly much later. This summer the Oregon Public Utilities Commission (OPUC) will decide whether to approve the 2020 Plan—and by rejecting it, OPUC can protect ratepayers from the risks of coal dependence. If PGE shifts to cleaner energy sources by 2014 instead of six years later, students in Oregon will win.

Students will win because it’s the best thing Oregon can do to hold catastrophic climate change at bay. And they’ll win because electricity rates around Portland won’t be so tied to a fuel destined to grow more expensive. By the time today’s students buy their first home, federal climate legislation will almost certainly be in place. That’s going to make carbon more expensive, and renewable energy cheaper—and it’ll make coal-fired power plants seem like a bad investment. When people who are in college today buy their first home in 2016 or 2017, they’ll benefit if their electricity bill isn’t tied to the price of coal power.

That’s why this year organizers with the Cascade Climate Network, OSPIRG, and Sierra Student Coalition approached student governments on campuses across Oregon, seeing these elected student organizations as the legitimate voice of thousands of young people. We worked with these bodies to pass resolutions calling for a transition away from Boardman by 2014. The response we got was overwhelming. Ten student governments representing large public universities, small private colleges, community colleges, and a high school have now called for Boardman’s timely retirement.

Registering this kind of input from student governments has given students in Oregon a new and more powerful voice in one of the most important energy decisions of the year. We’re calling on the Oregon Public Utilities Commission and other decision-makers to reject PGE’s 2020 Plan, and prevent the company from passing the costs of keeping Boardman open on to ratepayers. It’s now up to OPUC to do what’s right for Oregon, and right for Oregon students.

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    Nice post NIck!

    Kudos to you for getting engaged. We need all hands on deck.

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    Enter an initiative spearheaded by ten student body governments in Oregon which this year passed resolutions urging a transition away from the state’s only in-state coal plant, on a faster timescale than that proposed by the plant’s utility operator.

    The elephant in the room though is what are you advocating specifically be done to realistically replace the electrical production of the Boardman plant?

    What specific technologies and production facilities should replace it and how can you get them online by 2014?

    The goals in the abstract you are advocating for are good. I am fully supportive of wanting to move us off of dirty energy production to cleaner sustainable ones. But without clear actionable alternatives and a realistic framework to advocate for them, as concrete replacement alternative(s) it will be easy to do nothing in response to the resolution you are putting forward.

    Not trying to knock down your efforts and engagement on this issue. But rather suggesting going further to make the effort(s) towards something that is actionable and viable as specific policies.

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    This is from The Economist magazine, 5/27/10, in an article entitled, "Two into three won't go":

    "Europe now has a large and costly carbon market that is meant to drive the economy towards low-emission technologies. But the price it sets on emissions is too low. A 30% target (for reduction of CO-2 emissions, as compared to 1990 levels) would mean raising the cost of carbon in that market- although since many users get free allowances, the burden of paying that would still be spread unequally. There may be other ways to raise carbon costs that have more appeal: a rising EU-wide carbon tax, for example."

    So, couple of things: the proposed U.S. legislation would be very similar to what Europe now has, in that it will raise the price of energy (as big CO-2 emitters have to pay for either genuine or phony offsets), but it wouldn't raise the price enough to affect behavior. So, it is a useless added expense that does nothing to solve the most critical problem we face. And, as the price won't be affected that much, coal will still be cheaper as regards short-term costs than are renewables.

    And, the target of the U.S. legislation, if everything works out just as planned and in spite of the European experience, is only to call for a 17% reduction vis-avis 2005 levels. Pathetic!

    Yes, we need to shut Boardman, ASAP- but to do so we need to make CO-2 emissions financially expensive (they're already environmentally expensive).

    We need betrter legislation than what Waxman-Markey, Kerry-Lieberman offer.

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      For all those who honestly believe CO2 is a problem, just hold your breath...

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        Dispute the science, if you can.

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          There is a lot of science that pro global warming people would like to ignore. It's easy to find, just use google. One such report is located at

          I'm no scientist, but I know there are a lot more factors that affect the weather than just CO2.

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        I checked your facebook page, Mr. McDowell. You list your preferred viewing as being Fox News. Which says a lot.

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          I should say it does say a lot. It shows that I research what is going on in todays world. Just because I like Fox News over the others doesn't mean I disregard the others. Obviously that's the case otherwise I wouldn't possibly waste my time reading this site. I like to get my news from multiple sources so that I can compare and contrast the differences and try to figure out the truth. Honestly can you tell me which news organization these days is not biased in some way?

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    A 6-year accelerated closing of the Boardman plant will make no measurable difference in CO2 emissions. It will only cost money that could be put to more productive and beneficial use for the citizens of this state.

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      Well, closing coal-burning plants and replacing the capacity through efficiency and other means of generation will be cheaper and more effective than going the route of "clean coal".

      Sure, if Boardman closes then PGE might just buy power from the grid which is generated elsewhere via burning coal. But we have to begin shutting down the coal-burning method. The more to be of these to be closed down and replaced, the better.

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        The cheapest and cleanest way to get power for our nation is nuclear power. Why doesn't anyone see this? The cost is very high for solar and wind technologies, but the only way they are affordable is through tax breaks and subsidies. As for the nuclear waste that is produced, I'm sure our scientists can come up with a method of disposal that is environmentally friendly.

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    What exactly are we supposed to do, while our state's biggest crisis is a lack of jobs, with the dozens of workers at that plant who will then be out of the job?

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      Invest in the renewables and efficiency sectors- train people for that.

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        Okay, not bad intentions.

        Where do you get the money to train them and invest in renewables and conservation? Will we make sure that there are projects in the Boardman area where they will be able to train and then work? How will you ensure that there are projects in the Boardman area?
        Will we guarantee former coal plant workers preferential treatment if they are qualified for the work? Will there be enough jobs as a result of the projects in order to replace the jobs lost at the coal plant? Will the new jobs provide roughly the same standard of living to the coal plant workers that they currently have?

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          These are all great questions. However, why would we think the answers to these questions would be any different in 2014 vs 2020 or 2040???

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          Connor Allen, we have $70 billion in public subsidies for a myth called "clean coal" in the Waxman-markey bill and I believe a similar level in the Senate bill.

          That will be $70 billion poured straight down a black hole, as the amount of engineering and construction to provide a network to capture even 15 per cent of the world's carbon emissions would require facilities that have twice the annual through put of the world's crude oil industry (source: Vaclav Smil in his book: "Energy Myths and Realities"). And not to mention the danger of storing 100% CO-2.

          So, "clean coal" ain't going to happen. And there's $70 billion right there, to start.

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            I doubt that bill has what it takes to make it throught the whole process of becoming law. This is nothing more than cap & trade disguised under a new name. Economically, this may as well be suicide for our nation. Are we intentionally trying to bring our nation down? It seems that way sometimes.

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    Nice job Nick. I commend your efforts to get students involved. At some point we're going to have to move to a clean and renewable energy future. We might as well get started. We can't burn fossil fuels forever. Sure it will be an adjustment, but I believe green jobs are out there. There are already lots of good green jobs. If we are going to cling to the old dirty industries, how are we going to move forward?

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    Thanks very much to everyone who left their comments! There're some good points brought up here to discuss, as well as a little of the usual denier gibberish I expect to see on any post about climate (I'd almost be disappointed if the deniers didn't show). Let me try to address at least some of the main points folks have brought up.

    First, replacing Boardman Coal: My first choice is to replace as much coal as possible with clean energy sources (wind, solar, geothermal, etc), and energy efficiency measures. If this isn’t enough (at least not at first), domestic natural gas is a back-up option. Gas is still a fossil fuel, but cleaner than coal - and Oregon has access to plenty of domestic gas reserves. If it turns out PGE can't get enough of their own renewables or gas online by 2014, they can enter into power purchase agreements with other utilities (which have already indicated they'd be willing to enter into such agreements).

    Next, the need for stronger federal legislation: Stephen is absolutely right - we need stronger legislation than anything currently on the table. Even adopting the relatively weak Waxman-Markey targets would make burning coal seem like less of a good investment. But I couldn't agree more that stronger measures are needed.

    McDowell's denier comment: Carbon dioxide is of course a natural (and essential) part of the atmosphere. The problem is we're spewing out more new carbon, formerly trapped underground, than the climate can handle. If you still don't believe the science, it's probably going to take more space than I've got here to convince you.

    Ed Diehl's comment about measurable impacts: Over six years, Boardman would emit around 30 million tons of carbon into the atmosphere - emissions that could be largely or completely prevented by transitioning to cleaner energy. That sounds measurable to me.

    Replacing the jobs: Sadly, some jobs in the fossil fuel industries will be lost as we transition to clean energy. But I believe we stand to gain many more jobs than we'll lose. A recently-approved wind farm in the Boardman area is expected to employ over 700 people for the construction of that one project. The majority of the workers at Boardman would probably go to work at some other PGE facility if the plant closes. The economy stands to benefit overall from the transition to clean energy.

    Thanks everyone for continuing the discussion, Nick Engelfried

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      Nick, I'm totally sympathetic with the cause of getting off of coal. We need to do it. However, we Democrats cannot tell our fellow Oregonians that our policies are right, and if our policies affect them negatively, then they just need to deal with it. Your solution to the jobs question is that there will be jobs created... somewhere. Will there be jobs in Boardman? If not, I guess they'll just have to deal with it.

      You can't tell that to a state with countless towns that are a shadow of their former selves because the wood & paper jobs went away while we still haven't figured out how to keep those towns going without logging.

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        Again, no matter when the coal plant closes down, you, Nick, or I cannot guarantee jobs in Boardman--that is up to PGE. However, there is no reason to believe that PGE will completely abandon Boardman. The land can accommodate up to 3 different plants, yet only has the coal plant. If PGE chooses to pursue natural gas in Boardman as a transition fuel, this will open up jobs and allow employees to be retrained. Plus, pursuing cleaner alternatives such as wind and solar will open up NEW jobs--something a struggling economy needs.

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          Bill, PGE has no obligation to find new jobs for its employees if outside groups force them to shut down.

          I don't care what year we are considering doing this, I will support closing the plant so long as we do it in a responsible manner, and by that I mean try to make sure that the workers there are not screwed. I believe that today we can find a way to make sure they continue to be employed. That Nick and others involved in the campaign haven't yet means they are just not on their A game. They need to step it up and take the jobs problem seriously.

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    So, the basic argument is coal is cheap and it provides jobs. Well, coal is getting expensive. Burning coal harms harms the environment and our health. In addition, with the new EPA rules coming out concerning emissions, it is only going to get more and more expensive (this is even before we consider any future regulations on CO2). The roughly 600 million dollars in pollution controls that PGE will need to invest in the plant would be better used to make the transition to cleaner alternatives NOW. It makes more fiscal sense to invest in long term clean technology rather than continuing to invest huge sums of money to make a dirty source of energy "less" dirty--especially a source that is on it's way out.

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    Yes, Connor, there are cleaner-energy projects already planned for the Boardman area. One is the wind farm I already mentioned in my earlier comment - the Shepherd's Flat wind project, which will be one of the largest in the state. Part of it will span Morrow County where Boardman is located. PGE also already plans to build at least one natural gas unit on the site where Boardman is currently. But to keep the demand coming for jobs-creating projects like Shepherd's Flat, we need to phase out coal use. That's aside from the fact that transitioning away from Boardman is the best thing we can do to avert catastrophic global warming and the devastating economic impacts that would come with it.

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    Another point missed by many is that Boardman has been in severe, flagrant, undeniable violation of the Clean Air Act for most of its life. When Oregon State granted expemptions to the Act, they did so in violation of Federal Law. My rights to a clean, healthy environment, promised by the Act, to me as citizen have been violated routinely for decades, by PGE and Oregon State. The risks and penalties to my health delivered by Boardman are widely documented by health statistics across the country and worldwide. Coal pollutes, Coal is toxic, Coal shortens lives, and Coal kills. I never signed a waiver allowing such a gross, longterm violation of my rights, and neither did anyone else in Oregon or Montana or Idaho. To those of you thinking that "CLEAN COAL" is a possibility, you are sadly mistaken. Think about it: What on earth can possibly be "clean" about burning 300 TONS of coal every hour?? Of every day?? And if global warming is a left-wing conspiracy, then apparently the whole darned planet (including the climate) is in on it. IF WE MAKE THIS A PRIORITY, WE CAN DO THIS. Replace the energy with renewables, efficiency, and yes, perhaps natural gas.

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