Oregon’s only coal-fired power plant is at a crossroads. Portland General Electric’s plant in Boardman may have to spend a half-billion dollars on mandatory air pollution controls.
Those are part of a state proposal that the public can comment on, until Friday. Rob Manning took a road-trip to PGE's Boardman plant and has this report.
About halfway to Boardman from Portland is the city of The Dalles. Some days, people say you can taste the plant from here.
Tom Wood: “When we get the real inversion, you wouldn’t see any of the Columbia hills over here. It just sets down like a high fog.”
That’s Tom Wood, a retired plumbing inspector. He moved to The Dalles in the 1980s — shortly after Boardman opened. He’s noticed that when the air gets trapped - it’s nasty.
Tom Wood: “When that occurs, and the Boardman plant is running, I personally detect, the only way I can explain it, is it’s like a burnt metal odor. My eyes burn….”
The Yakama Nation and environmental groups found out the extent of the pollution beginning with studies from the U.S. Forest Service .
Michael Lang is the conservation director for Friends of the Columbia Gorge.
Michael Lang: “So this information came in during 2000 to 2005, and really led agencies to decide, ok, well what do we have to do to clean up air pollution in the Columbia River Gorge. The law requires it. And the focus really started honing in on the Boardman coal-fired power plant.”
Boardman produces the lion’s share of pollution that leads to haze. Federal and state regulators want the air cleared almost completely in the coming decades.
But Boardman provides 15 percent of PGE’s power - at far less than the market rate.
Loren Mayer is the plant manager.
Loren Mayer: “Boardman, it’s reliable, it’s there when we need it. It runs regardless of whether it’s cold or hot, windy or calm. It’s dependable, and we need that in our power system, to make sure that people have the power they need, when they need it.”
He takes me up 20 stories to the roof where you can see how the process works.
Loren Mayer: “The building on the far end is where we unload the train. We’ve got a dumper there that rotates the cars upside down and dumps the coal out of the top of the cars. We can dump a 115-car train in roughly five and a half hours.”
State regulators are concerned right now with what happens inside the coal plant, and the air pollution that escapes. PGE has plans to reduce its mercury emissions. And controls on carbon are probably coming. But what the state is worried about right now is sulfur and nitrogen.
The plant's power — and problems — come from this blazing inferno. It’s so hot, you have to wear a protective glove to put your hand anywhere close to it. You’ll hurt your eyes if you look directly at it. The coal heats water here into very hot steam - and that activates a generator up above.
Boardman critics often say that there are no pollution controls on the plant. There are some, actually, but they’re old - like these low-nitrogen burners.
Loren Mayer: “It’s a first generation.”
More efficient burners will cost about $32 million. They’ll cut nitrogen in half, once they’re installed, two years from now.
Loren Mayer: “We would pull that entire burner out, and replace it with a new design. The coal enters differently. And it provides a better distribution of the coal into the furnace, and a better control of the mixing of the air and the coal to control the flame temperature.”
But PGE is not as ready to deal with sulfur dioxide. The state plan calls for attaching a scrubber to the side of the plant.
Loren Mayer: “The scrubber is going to go in this unoccupied area just on the other side of the chimney, that’s where it will be built.”
The state's Department of Environmental Quality mandates the scrubber in the proposed rule. But PGE spokesman, Steve Corson, says the company is asking the DEQ for a few more years to consider it.
Steve Corson: “The first decision point, in 2012, is for the scrubber, whether or not to do the scrubber. And that’s certainly a very significant cost, and a significant decision.”
PGE would evaluate the nearly $250 million cost, and see if it’d be cost-effective. The alternative would be to run the plant without sulfur controls until 2020, and then shut Boardman down.
The company wants even more time to evaluate an additional control system for nitrogen. Plant manager Loren Mayer says it’s an expensive hassle.
Loren Mayer: “That’s roughly $190 million. I’ll show you why, here, just a second….”
Mayer opens a large metal window. A cold wind blows in.
Loren Mayer: “Look how high up we are. That whole assembly has to be supported off the ground below us, over the top of the precipitator.”
Rob Manning: “How high up are we?”
Loren Mayer: “Roughly 150 feet.”
PGE says the additional problem with the second round of nitrogen controls DEQ wants is that it wouldn’t reduce emissions very much.
All told, PGE wants more time to consider more than $400 million in DEQ’s fixups. The question is whether it would pay to clean up Boardman or just close it down. That debate makes some locals uneasy.
Gary Neal directs the nearby Port of Morrow.
Gary Neal: “What I’m fearful of and I’m hoping that doesn’t happen, is that some kind of a decision could conceivably be made, that all of these costs are so great, and maybe we should just consider closing the plant down - which would be a pretty significant economic impact to our area.”
But back in Portland, Michael Lang with Friends of the Gorge, has a different take . He argues that PGE has gotten away with running a heavily polluting plant for years, and it should be held to a high standard.
Lang says PGE should consider whether ratepayers would rather spend money on power from coal, or from cleaner technologies.
Michael Lang: “Weighing those two, I think that’s pretty clear what the best option for the environment is. It would be to close that plant down, and re-invest in technologies that provide the energy we need at a much reduced environmental cost.”
Boardman is the biggest industrial producer of carbon dioxide in Oregon. And ironically, decreasing haze would actually make the plant less efficient when it comes to carbon dioxide. So far, there’s no proven way to reduce carbon emissions from coal - other than to burn less of it.
PGE is experimenting at Boardman with using algae. But spokesman Steve Corson says it’s still in the early stages.
Steve Corson: “The goal is simply to determine whether or not we can find a strain of algae that will thrive of this - that in essence, can consume a significant percentage of the carbon from the plant.”
That's important because governments are beginning to put a price on carbon emissions, to try to combat climate change. If nothing emerges that can sequester those emissions, coal plants like Boardman may just get too expensive to run.