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Q&A: Utilities Make Wind And Coal Power Announcements

Northwest utilities were busy Tuesday.

Portland General Electric's coal-fired Boardman power plant

Vince Patton / OPB

Portland General Electric settled a long-standing lawsuit over its coal plant. At the same time, the Bonneville Power Administration addressed its complicated relationship with wind power by making two announcements Tuesday.

OPB’s environment reporter, Rob Manning joins me to discuss the busy day for utilities.

Beth Hyams: First – let’s look at PGE’s Boardman coal plant – which we knew already was scheduled to be closed – is now going to close under the force of a court decision. Who settled today?

Rob Manning: The Friends of the Columbia Gorge and other environmental groups filed a lawsuit three years ago arguing the Boardman plant was violating the Clean Air Act. Now since then – PGE agreed with state regulators to close Boardman by 2020. It also means that between now and 2020, the plant will run more cleanly. Michael Lang is the Friends of the Gorge conservation director.

Michael Lang: “It’s hard to believe, but I think some common ground was identified, where we realized that there were some things that PGE was willing to do that we might not have been able to get to in our lawsuit.”

Rob Manning: For instance, PGE is spending $2.5 million on environmental projects. But even combining that with a million dollars in legal fees – PGE considers the settlement a better deal than what could’ve happened if they’d lost in court.

PGE public policy director, Dave Robertson, says the utility is committing to polluting less, year-by-year, until the plant closes. It’s a slightly tighter standard than the Department of EQ called for, but Robertson says it’s close to how they were planning to run Boardman.

Dave Robertson: “That was part of what we were going to do under the DEQ rules, as well, so, when we started talking about it as part of the settlement, it wasn’t going to be anything that would be hugely different from what we were going to do anyway.”

Beth Hyams: Once Boardman is closed, that could well mean more renewable energy on the grid. Is everyone ready for that?

Rob Manning: PGE hasn’t decided exactly how it’ll fill the gap. But renewable energy is likely to be part of it.

Beth Hyams: Right – which brings us to another announcement today. More than a dozen utilities have agreed to test out buying and selling electricity on a half-hour basis. Why is this a big deal?

Rob Manning: In the past, electricity has always been sold in the Northwest on a half-hour basis. But with wind and solar changing more quickly than that – and with demand sometimes changing, too, utilities have been interested in trading power more quickly, to respond to changes. Here’s Michael Milstein with Bonneville Power Administration – one of the utilities involved.

Michael Milstein: “As we get more and more renewable energy in the grid, which can vary from time to time, this gives the generators – wind projects and others – the ability to go on the market, if there’s extra power that’s generated from their projects, and actually sell that to meet demand somewhere else in the system.”

Beth Hyams: Now this idea of “extra power” has been a problem for BPA, especially as it relates to wind power. For weeks, the utility has shut off wind turbines when there’s been a lot of water in the hydro system – to avoid problems that could be created by having too much power in the grid.

The wind industry doesn’t like having its turbines turned off, and it filed a complaint with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. Today, BPA responded. What did they say?

Rob Manning: They made two main arguments. The first is that FERC can’t regulate BPA, because BPA is a separate federal entity.

Instead, BPA argues the debate should take place at the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. But BPA’s 554-page response – and I won’t claim to have read all of it – also says the claims of “discrimination” are baseless, and based on a flawed reading of the law.

In the last few weeks, though, the wind industry has gained some strong allies – including the state’s public utility commission, and Portland General Electric.

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