Oregon utility Portland General Electric (PGE) is maneuvering to shut down the state’s only coal-fired power plant in 2020, two decades ahead of schedule. It's a significant move that some observers say may prompt a shift in U.S. coal use.
"It could be game-changing," said Jeff Bissonnette, the organizing director for the Portland-based Citizens' Utility Board of Oregon, a ratepayer advocacy group.
Bissonnette told SolveClimate that he believes this is the first time a utility in the United States has seriously undertaken a discussion to shutter a baseload coal plant.
In 2009, plans for 26 new coal-fired power plants were shelved nationwide, according to the Sierra Club. A few utilities also considered closing operational coal plants, but most are "very old coal plants" that do not operate frequently, Bissonnette said.
"On a national level, this is a very big deal," he added. "Closing down a coal plant like Boardman, a baseload workhorse of a plant that produces electricity reliably around the clock, is new."
PGE the 2020 shutdown in a letter to the Oregon Public Utility Commission (PUC) on Jan. 14.
"Frankly, we were surprised at the strength of the letter," Bissonnette said.
Just four months ago, the landscape in Oregon was markedly different. In November, the utility submitted its controversial Integrated Resource Plan () to the PUC, proposing to keep PGE's 550-megawatt, 35-year-old Boardman coal plant in business until 2040.
But there was a hitch. The utility would have to spend around $550 million on pollution control equipment to meet federal and state haze-reduction rules. Under a plan approved by the state Environmental Quality Commission, PGE would need to install the expensive controls in three shots — in 2011, 2014 and 2017.
That set off a firestorm among anti-coal activists.
With coal in trouble due to uncertainty from coming federal carbon curbs and the scientific consensus surrounding global warming, investing such sums in fossil fuels would incur too much financial risk, they argued.
For environmentalists and others, shoveling hundreds of millions of dollars into cleaner energy would be a far safer bet.
Further, the controls proposed for Boardman would do little to reign in CO2 emissions from the plant — the largest single source of greenhouse gas pollution in the state. The facility spews nearly 500 million tons of CO2, equal to the emissions from 844,000 cars per year, according to figures from Environment Oregon.
In its letter to the PUC, PGE said it was the "discussion with environmental regulators and other stakeholders" that swayed it to propose early retirement for Boardman.
“Right now state regulations give us very few options — either shut the plant prematurely at a tremendous cost to customers or install very expensive new controls despite uncertainty about future carbon regulation and technological developments,” PGE President and CEO Jim Piro said in explaining the letter.
“We think an alternative plan could reduce cost and risk for our customers while giving us time to develop replacement resources or convert to a different fuel.”
For several local environmental groups, however, PGE's new proposal for Boardman doesn't move fast enough.
"Based on the analyses I've seen, 2014 is both the most cost-effective and technically feasible year to shutdown the coal plant," Brock Howell, state policy advocate for Environment Oregon, told SolveClimate.
Howell said PGE is proposing to regulators that it purchase just $45 million in
pollution-control technology, rather than $550 million, and shut down in 2020. However, he said, other factors could prove the plant must be retired before 2020. These include the U.S. EPA's stricter regulations for ozone and sulfur dioxide emissions and the possibility of federal greenhouse gas regulation.