Puget Sound Energy is officially moving closer to setting a retirement date for two controversial coal-fired power plants it co-owns in Montana. This is a welcome, overdue move.
The utility, which serves swaths of Western Washington including Thurston County, went before the Utilities and Transportation Commission on Thursday and made an unusual request to delay a power rate adjustment hearing until January.
The stated reason was PSE wants time to develop a plan for the future retirement of Colstrip 1 and 2 power plants. Importantly, PSE said it intends to provide “a narrow window of dates for the planned retirement of Units 1 and 2.”
That appears to be the strongest statement to date of the Bellevue-based utility’s plans to cut back its use of coal, although PSE would continue to operate two other Montana coal-fired plants in which it has investments.
Environmental groups such as the Sierra Club have been on PSE’s case for years, arguing that the power plants are heavy polluters, no longer cost effective and an unnecessary contributor of greenhouse gases that are blamed for global warming.
Also, lower-cost natural gas is making coal fired power less competitive, creating what Doug Howell of the Sierra Club has described as an inevitable shutdown scenario.
“PSE’s customers are moving there. The economics are there,” Howell said recently. “It’s moving from being inevitable to … being more imminent.’’
Sierra Club, Earthjustice, and the Northwest Energy Coalition were among the co-petitioners who either support or do not object to PSE’s request for delays in its rate case. The utility had been expected to file its paperwork for a rate adjustment by April 1.
Puget Sound Energy spokesmen did not respond to requests for comment. The company has diversified its source of electrical energy in recent years, investing more than $2 billion in wind power, but it owns a share in four Montana coal plants.
Energy engineering consultant David Schlissel, who testified at the UTC this month and talked about his latest Colstrip study, says power from the coal plants is already more expensive than what PSE could obtain from the market.
A step away from coal will carry costs for decommissioning the plants and cleaning up the filthy coal legacy. PSE faces environmental issues with coal ash ponds in Montana that are already the subject of lawsuits.
In a move that supports PSE’s actions, the Legislature recently approved Senate Bill 6248 to let utilities put plant-retirement money into special accounts monitored by the UTC that can help pay for the eventual shutdowns.
Puget Sound Energy deserves credit for this latest step to move away from highly polluting sources of energy. It echoes what TransAlta is doing with its planned phase-out of coal-fired power plants near Centralia.
We look forward to seeing PSE’s plan.