Inland Northwest residents concerned about climate change, safety and our environment are organizing against fossil fuel infrastructure. Activists in eastern Washington continue to support efforts to stop construction of new fossil fuel infrastructure facilities at west coast ports and have used direct action and political action to call attention to the dangers that transportation of coal and oil by rail pose to our communities. Passion against coal exports is rising, but we have been too passive in addressing our own local use of coal-fired electricity generated by existing power plants. Speaking out against the our region’s continued reliance on coal-fired electricity is the next strong step we must take toward a low-carbon, renewable energy future for our planet.
Washington State benefits from abundant hydropower which, while causing great problems for salmon and other migratory aquatic species, has kept the carbon footprint of electricity use in Washington State low for decades. Yet Washington, from Seattle to Spokane, remains dependent on “coal-by-wire.” Coal combustion is the the most carbon intensive source source of electric power. Although coal accounted for about 70 percent of CO2 emissions released in the production of electricity, it represented only about 34 percent of the electricity generated in the United States in 2015. Electricity generated from the burning of fossil fuels is the largest source of green house gas emissions in the United States. The necessary transition to a low-carbon economy requires the elimination of coal-fired electricity.
Too many consumers remain unaware or unconcerned that the power mix of electricity supplied by Avista Utilities to its 680,000 customers in eastern Washington, Oregon and northern Idaho consist of nearly 10% coal-fired electricity.
Avista Utilities, an investor-owned utility, gets coal-generated electricity from Colstrip power plant. Avista Corporation owns 15% of Colstrip Units 3 and 4, in Colstrip Montana. The Colstrip plant has 2 older units and 2 newer units which serve 1.6 million people. The newer units, Units 3 and 4, are owned by 6 separate utility entities.
Colstrip is the second largest coal-fired plant west of the Mississippi and the third largest polluter of CO2 emissions in the US. When we consider the additional release of mercury, arsenic, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides, coal-fired power is the single most polluting way to generate electricity. Colstrip emits 17.1 million metric tons of greenhouse gases annually and consumes 274 rail cars full of coal every day.
Avista rate-payers who are concerned about the growing dangers of run-away climate change, and who expect to pay a fair rate for a good utility product, must speak up now for the elimination of coal-by-wire. A majority of U.S. residents favor reducing the use of coal to make electricity.
The Oregon legislature made the connection between the burning of fossil fuels for electricity and the threat of climate change. In March of 2016, Oregon Governor Kate Brown signed a bill requiring Oregon’s utilities to divest from coal by 2030. The two largest utility companies in Oregon hold ownership in Colstrip. Portland General Electric owns of 20% Colstrip Units 3 and 4, and PacifiCorp, a Utah based company, is a 10% owner of Units 3 and 4. Under Oregon law, PGE and PacifiCorp must stop paying for out-of-state coal power by 2030. As major stakeholders are forced by law to withdraw from coal-fired electricity, the viability of the remaining owner’s shares comes into question. When PGE withdraws it’s 20% ownership, will Avista Corporation purchase the share and increase our dependency on coal? Or, if Avista continues to own a portion of Colstrip as other owners divest, will Avista Utility ratepayers be forced bear a greater cost burden to pay for an increasing portion of the operation and maintenance of Units 3 and 4?
Avista Utilities’ Integrated Resource Plan, submitted to the Washington State Utilities and Transportation Commission on August 31st, calls for the continued use of Colstrip for electric power through 2037 and beyond. Every ratepayer should be concerned to learn that our local utility continues to ignore not only the voices of climate activists, but also ignores the financial risks of continued, long-term investment in a superannuated power source.
As pressure to end reliance on coal-by-wire in Washington State mounts, yet another co-owner of Colstrip will be examining exit options. Puget Sound Energy of Washington holds the largest share of ownership in Colstrip Units 3 and 4 at 25% ownership. The King County Strategic Climate Action Plan, signed by Seattle and a dozen other cities in the county, calls for coal-fired electricity sources to be phased out by 2025. About half of PSE customers reside in King County. In Thurston County, the City of Olympia passed a resolution in 2015 asking PSE to “promptly and efficiently (move) away from coal-based energy.” Furthermore, Washington Governor Jay Inslee issued an executive order in 2014 instructing state agencies to work “with key utilities to reduce, and eventually eliminate, the use of electrical power produced by coal.”
Ratepayer demands are making a difference. Andy Wappler, PSE’s vice president for corporate affairs said in the Scientific American, “The changing landscape around coal presents a lot of risk for our customers in terms of both the potential future cost of energy as well as around grid reliability and availability of power,” noting that both federal and state climate regulations are part of that landscape.
Avista Utility planners and management are well aware of the legal, political and public pressures against coal-by-wire. We might anticipate their argument that coal-fired electricity is necessary to balance the energy needs of their customers and to keep electricity rates low. The dynamic nature of the exploding market in renewable energy gives the lie to such arguments.
Cost of renewable energy sources wind and solar are dropping dramatically to the point that in a growing number of markets, the cost of renewable energy is equivalent to coal. According to the 2017 Sustainable Energy in America Factbook, “the steeply falling costs for renewables and other clean energy technologies has made traditional electricity fuels — namely coal and oil — less competitive than ever before.” The World Economic Forum’s Renewable Infrastructure Investment Handbook states that, “by 2020, solar photovoltaic is projected to have a lower [cost] than coal or natural gas-fired generation throughout the world.”
As Columbia River hydropower diminishes in the dry summer months, the Pacific Northwest turns to other sources of electricity to meet demand. At the time of writing, it has been 72 days since the last time it rained in Spokane. We have summer sun in abundance, ready for harvest. Rather than import the most carbon-intensive and most heavily polluting power source, Washington can build, install, operate and maintain solar farms in this state, creating jobs and a stronger economy. We can continue our relationship with our neighbors in Montana by creating demand for wind power, which Montana can develop in nearly endless capacity if the demand is ready and waiting.
Lastly, while all of Colstrip’s owners operate outside Montana, the state of Montana determines when or if new mines can be opened. The current mine used to fuel Colstrip power plant is expected to run out of coal by 2024. A new mine would need to be created to continue Colstrip operations. Under Montana law, the old mine must be remediated before a new mine is opened by the same entity. Whether the Colstrip mine will or even can be restored to a natural state remains to be seen. While it is far from unprecedented to ignore the laws and regulations requiring remediation and restoration of former mines, consumers have an ethical responsibility to ensure that the raw materials used for the energy that heats and lights our homes are procured in accordance with the law.
Climate activists and concerned ratepayers in eastern Washington must increase the demand on Avista to transition to coal-free power mix. 350 Spokane has a petition to Avista CEO Scott Morris, asking for the elimination of coal-fired electricity from Avista’s power supply by 2025, in line with the growing demand from PSE’s consumers for PSE to set the same 2025 benchmark. If Avista does not listen to consumer concerns about coal-fired electricity, ratepayers have recourse to appeal directly to Washington Utility and Transportation Commission. The mission of the UTC is “to protect the people of Washington by ensuring that investor-owned utility and transportation services are safe, available, reliable and fairly priced.” Burning coal is no longer safe for our planet. As other utility owners of Colstrip respond to the reality of climate change by withdrawing from the plant, the price of maintaining Colstrip will be unfairly burdensome to remaining ratepayers. Avista, unlike PSE and PGE, has not yet come under consistent and considerable pressure from its customers to pull out of Colstrip. That needs to change.