Unlikely coalition unites over TransAlta

SB 5769: Under plan, both coal boilers would shut down by 2025

March 16, 2011 

TransAlta power plant/Steve Bloom photo /2006 aerial

The TransAlta plant is shown in a 2006 aerial photo.

STEVE BLOOM — The Olympian

The first time the House Environment Committee had a hearing on a bill to shut down coal power, groups of environmentalists and power-plant workers spent hours giving conflicting testimony and held competing rallies on the Capitol Campus.

Things looked different at a second hearing on the proposal Tuesday, when an unlikely coalition of labor representatives, environmentalists and representatives from Centralia-based TransAlta, the state’s only coal-fired power plant, came to testify in favor of Senate Bill 5769.

“This has been a fascinating journey,” said Sen. Phil Rockefeller, a Bainbridge Island Democrat and the bill’s primary sponsor. “I do believe we have been able to achieve the bones of a very good agreement.”

The current bill, the product of an agreement among state, TransAlta and environmental group representatives, would require the TransAlta plant to shut down one of its boilers by the end of 2020 and the other by Dec. 31, 2025. Even if it passes, much of Washington’s electricity could still come from coal in other places.

The proposal already passed the Senate 36-13 and must make it through the House. If it does, environmental advocates said, it could serve as a model for making the transition to cleaner sources of energy nationwide.

The bill includes incentives for TransAlta to build a new natural-gas-powered plant in the Lewis County area, which company spokeswoman Angela Mallow said was a likely next step.

Even if that happens the electricity that Washingtonians buy will not be entirely coal-free.

Puget Sound Energy spokesman Roger Thompson said his utility, which serves parts of King, Pierce, Thurston and six other counties in Western Washington, would continue to get about 30 percent of its power from coal, mainly from a plant in Montana.

Occasionally, Puget Sound Energy buys “spot” power, or temporary power, from TransAlta when energy demand is high, but most of the time it contracts with other providers, Thompson said, so its transition would not change the power source for many Western Washington residents.

Mallow said TransAlta sells about 50 percent of its power in Washington.

One thing the change would mean for Washington would be the emission of fewer pollutants in the state, and although environmental advocates had initially pushed for a 2015 deadline to end coal burning, they said they were pleased with the compromise bill.

Ecology Department spokesman Seth Preston said the existing TransAlta coal plant puts out about 10 million metric tons of greenhouse gases per year, making it the largest single emitter of the climate-changing pollutants in the state.

Replacing one of the coal-fired boilers at the Centralia plant with natural gas probably would cut emissions by about 2.7 million metric tons per year, said Preston, although the Ecology Department did not have numbers for the amount of emissions reductions were the second boiler to be shut down.

According to the most recent estimate, Washington has to cut emissions by 11 million metric tons per year to reach 1990 levels by 2020, as required under a 2008 law.

Shutting down the coal-fired boilers in Centralia also would reduce mercury pollution in the state because natural gas emits negligible amounts of the toxic metal compared with coal.

A January report by Environment Washington found that the TransAlta plant emitted about 360 pounds of mercury in 2009.

One remaining point of controversy in the bill is the amount Washington utilities that buy electricity would have to pay for natural-gas-fired power as opposed to coal-based power.

Tim Boyd, a lobbyist for Industrial Customers of Northwest Utilities, said he was concerned about the amount natural gas could cost.

“We’ve reached a principle that rate-payers should be no worse off economically, but we still have some pretty key and serious, in our mind, unresolved issues around this language,” he said, referring to the Senate bill.

Natural-gas-based electricity is more expensive than coal power, said Mallow, but she said TransAlta planned to work with utilities in the state to try to keep costs down.

Though job loss was a major point of controversy over the legislation that was originally introduced to end coal power in Washington, representatives from labor and the Centralia area said they supported the most recent version of the Senate Bill, which would require TransAlta to provide funding for economic development in the region.

“TransAlta is happy with the deal, so therefore the community is happy with the deal,” said Jim Valley, executive director of the Centralia-Chehalis Chamber of Commerce. “I think it’s as good as it’s going to get.”

Valley said Centralia could be a good location for companies that need distribution centers with access to Seattle and Portland, and he thought wind-power and port industries could expand in the area in the future.

Rep. Dave Upthegrove, the Environment Committee chairman, said it was too early to say how the bill will fare in the House, but he was concerned about the effects of the measure on utilities and about the expansion of executive power that could result if it passes because it would require the governor to sign and enforce the agreement with TransAlta.

Overall, though, Upthegrove, D-Des Moines, said he was impressed that most people had been able to reach an agreement on the issue.

“It says a lot that all the parties are together on it,” he said.

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