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Environment | Economy

Even In Hydro-Rich Northwest, Coal Still Major Power Source

Today we begin a series of special reports on energy in the Pacific Northwest: where we get our power from now and what kind of energy we're likely to switch to in the future.

 The Switch

When you flip the switch, where does your power come from?
And what will power Northwest homes and businesses in the future?
We're asking these questions and more for our special series The Switch.

The switch is all about reducing the greenhouse  gases that cause climate change, and so we're kicking off our series with coal — a power source that comes from fossils.

While there's lots of coal on the planet now, like other fossil fuels, coal is not renewable — when it's gone, it's gone.

Coal is also relatively cheap, and it's abundant — so it won't be easy to kick the coal habit.   April Baer reports.

One of the most common misconceptions about Oregon’s power is that it’s practically all nice clean hydroelectric from the Columbia River. But the reality is this.

Editor's Note
This script was corrected to clarify that the mix of power sources applies to Oregon, not the Pacific Northwest.

To turn on their lights, Oregonians use about forty percent coal—and about the same amount of hydro, plus a mosaic of other power sources making up the last twenty percent.

To show you what I mean, I want you to meet three people, who live within twenty minutes drive of each other.  One’s a high-powered business consultant.

Mark Chussil “I’m Mark Chussil, I live in SW Portland.”

OK, Southwest Portland. That makes him a PGE customer.  

We also found a Port of Portland retiree on a fixed income.

Carollynn Smith   “My name is Carollynn Smith, Northeast Portland. I have my five grandchildren that lives with me.”

Carollynn’s owned her home for thirty years, and her electric’s from Pacific Power.  Rounding out our trio is a 30-something arborist who lives just over the Columbia from the other two.

John Butrell  “I’m John Butrell, I live in Vancouver, Washington, and I trim trees.”

April Baer: “Who is your power provider?”

John Butrell  “Clark Public Utilities.”

Three people, three utilities, three different electric bills for March. We did a rough number crunch.

April Baer: “Can you tell by looking how many kilowatt hours you consumed?

Mark Chussil  “Uh — yeahhhh. Twenty—Twenty point three per day.”

April Baer: “OK so for the month, let me get my calculator here….”

A Few Coal Facts

  • Contribution to current Oregon energy mix — 41%

  • Cost per kwh currently — Ranges from $ 0.012 to $ 0.037 This assumes a medium- to long-haul from coal mine to coal-fired power plant. This cost does not reflect the carbon costs that may become a reality within the next few years. Depending on what value regulators assign for coal burning, this could raise the cost per kwh considerably.

  • Is this power source renewable? — No

  • Is it intermittent or baseload power? — Baseload

Power bills reflect complex calculations, factoring in where the power comes from, and what it costs to get it to you. In the case of Mark’s utility, PGE,  a little over half its power comes from coal and natural gas, the rest from hydro, solar, and wind plants

April Baer: “ Seventy three divided by 550, OK that’s looking like — thirteen cents per kilowatt hour?”

Mark’s paying a little more than average, because he signed up for a PGE program that lets him subsidize new renewable power projects.  We’ll do Carollynn’s bill next.

Carollynn Smith  “1196 k-w-h. Whatever that means.   I don’t know what that means!”

Actually, neither did I. What it means according to our rough guide is that she’s paying about ten cents per kilowatt hour. Her utility, Pacific Power, mostly burns coal, with some natural gas, hydro, and wind power mixed in.

April Baer: “And then John’s got — how about you John, what do you got over there?"

John Butrell:  “I owe a hundred eight-ten. Total kilowatt hours used, fourteen hundred ninety.”

April Baer: About seven cents a kilowatt hour.”

Mark Chussil “I should run a long cable.”

As a Public Utility District customer, John’s consuming about sixty percent hydro power, some natural gas, nuclear, and a small fraction fueled by coal. 

All three of our power customers have heard the news about global climate change. Mark speaks for all three when he says it’s past time to go green.

Mark Chussil  “I would much prefer that we switch to different sources of electricity so that we are emitting less carbon in the first place. This stuff is not sudden. This was coming up on this and was seen decades ago.”

But the problem of moving to a more sustainable mix is ensuring that Mark, John, and Carollynn, can afford the changes.

Right now, coal is the region’s most inexpensive and reliable power source. It’s also the dirtiest.

Most of the Northwest’s coal-fired power plants are sited pretty far away from the people who use them—places like Wyoming and Montana.

PGE operates one plant in Boardman. But for most Oregonians, the closest coal plant is one-hundred miles north.

Sam Garst has a good view of the place.

Sam Garst:   “Right there is Transalta. And there you can see Mount St. Helens and Mount Rainier.”

He lives outside Olympia, about forty minutes north of the massive Transalta power plant in Centralia, Washington. But he’s at a high enough elevation that on some clear days, he can see the cloud of pollutants hovering over Centralia.

Sam Garst:  “It’s not that it’s a bad view or anything, but it is a reminder that it is the biggest emitter of CO2 emissions in the state of Washington.”

Transalta’s Centralia Plant

Transalta’s plant is far from being the worst polluter in the nation, but it’s part of a class of coal-fired plants that cause global environmental problems.

Since its adjacent mine closed down in 2007, coal for the plant has been shipped in by freight, on boxcar lines so long, they stretch as far as the eye can see down the Lewis County tracks. Mind-boggling as it is, it’s still cheaper to truck it in like this than to rely on another energy source.

The roar of the plant is deafening, even when you’re standing outside.

But the demand for cheap, stable coal power is louder.  The United States has lots of coal. Also, it’s baseload power.  That means it's there whether the sun is shining or the wind is blowing. And power companies are required to deliver power, whenever you flip your switch.

But the game is changing.  The race is on to invent technology to make renewable energy more reliable.

And the federal government is closer than it’s ever been to putting a dollar value on the harm coal does to the environment. That would give clean power industries a huge business advantage.

And coal plants are facing new mandates from Oregon and Washington to slash greenhouse gas emissions.

Melinda Eden sits on the Northwest Power and Conservation Council. In 2007, the Council produced a report that concluded Northwest plants will have to kick the coal habit.

Melinda Eden  “The region is not going to be able to meet carbon emissions targets without reducing carbon emissions at the existing plants.” 

So what kind of fuel has the reliability of coal, but with fewer carbon emissions? Next time on The Switch we’ll talk about the leading contender, natural gas.

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