Among sources of energy, “coal” is the four-letter word.
It’s often dangerous to extract from the ground. Its shipment on coal trains clogs traffic in urban areas. And when it’s burned to produce electricity, either here or when shipped abroad, it adds to the greenhouse gases that scientists say contribute to global warming.
Here in the Pacific Northwest — with its abundant hydropower, access to natural gas and growing wind power feeding into the electric grid — it’s hard to believe that 14 percent of the state’s electricity is still being generated by coal. Some of that comes from the state’s only coal-fired power plant, TransAlta in Centralia, which is scheduled to shut down its coal boilers by 2025 and rely solely on natural gas. But most coal-generated power comes via transmission wires from two plants in Wyoming and Montana.
Now Gov. Jay Inslee wants to see the state move away from coal-generated power. It was part of an executive order issued Tuesday aimed at significantly reducing Washington’s contribution to greenhouse gas emissions. The order creates a 21-member task force charged with devising a “market-based” approach to reducing carbon emissions that mitigates impacts on businesses and jobs.
Decreasing dependence on coal-based power is the responsible thing to do, but it will require cooperation from three of the state’s private electric utilities: Puget Sound Energy, Pacific Power and Spokane-based Avista Corp.
PSE — co-owner of the Colstrip coal-generating plant in eastern Montana — gets about 30 percent of its fuel mix from coal. The private utilities that use coal-generated power say replacing it with other sources will increase costs to ratepayers.
Critics point to the fact that the Colstrip plant produced nearly 13.5 million metric tons of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in 2012, according to EPA data. It is by far the largest emitter of greenhouse gases in the Northwest and 15th worst nationally.
Depending for so much of its power on coal burned in other states gives Washington little moral authority to criticize countries like China for their dangerous emission levels. And from a practical, economic standpoint, planning for a post-coal economy makes sense.
The Environmental Protection Agency is developing tougher carbon emission regulations that could force coal plants to spend millions on environmental upgrades; some of them might choose to shut down instead. Where would that leave communities that are now heavily dependent on coal-generated power?
In February, a Colstrip executive told The Spokesman-Review, “Where we sit today, it’s not clear what the future of coal generation is.” Lacking that clarity, taking steps toward a coal-free future is a wise path for Washington.