Coal Plants: Bad for Your Pocketbook, Bad for the Climate

No battle will define the US response to climate change more than how this country deals with its fleet of aging, dirty coal plants. Coal plants, responsible for generating about half the electricity used in the United States, are the single largest contributor to climate change. That nation’s current fleet of approximately 600 coal plants produces nearly 30% of total US carbon emissions. To have an impact, any US strategy to combat the effects of climate change must include a plan to replace these plants with cleaner energy sources.

Decommissioning the fleet of US coal plants would eliminate not only one of the most important causes of climate change, but major sources of mercury, acid rain and haze-causing compounds, and other harmful pollutants. It would be an environmental victory of enormous proportions; but protecting the planet isn’t the only reason utilities should move quickly away from coal-generated electricity. It turns out that in an age of heightened concern over climate change and pollution, dirty coal plants make a poor investment strategy. Those utilities that fail to move rapidly to cleaner energy sources are likely to solidify their dependence on a fuel bound to grow more expensive over time.

A case in point is Portland General Electric (PGE), the utility owner of Oregon’s Boardman Coal Plant. To comply with Clean Air Act standards, state and federal regulators have stipulated PGE must install hundreds of millions of dollars in pollution controls on Boardman before the year 2015; meanwhile federal carbon regulations are likely to kick in, making coal seem like an even worse investment. Yet PGE is pushing to keep Boardman running until 2020 or longer. Amid a public outcry over plans to prolong Boardman’s life, state regulators must now decide whether extending the life of a coal plant is a good use of ratepayer money. What happens with this mid-sized coal plant in Oregon may have national implications for the fate of hundreds of coal plants and the fight against climate change.

Closing Boardman in 2014 and transitioning to cleaner fuels would negate the need for new pollution controls, and eliminate the largest source of carbon emissions in Oregon. It would also provide an example for coal plant owners across the country, and blaze a trail for the timely retirement of dozens of plants over the next several years. Environmental, health, and consumer groups from the Sierra Club to Physicians for Social Responsibility are pressuring PGE to take this path, and permanently eliminate one of the largest causes of climate change in Oregon.

Students and youth have been particularly vocal in this fight: ten student governments at Oregon colleges, universities, and high schools have passed resolutions urging the timely closure of Boardman, almost all singling out 2014 as the best date to make the transition. Taken together, these elected student governments represent a constituency of well over one hundred thousand Oregon students. This year the cry for Boardman’s 2014 retirement has grown louder and louder, bringing Oregonians of all ages out to public hearings on the coal plant's fate, and prompting hundreds of comments submitted to decision-makers that ask for Boardman’s retirement. The issue comes to a head this summer, when Oregon’s Public Utilities Commission must decide whether to give PGE the go-ahead to keep Boardman open for at least the next decade.

In Oregon, state regulators have a choice: one that will be made by dozens of utility regulating agencies around the country. The Public Utilities Commission can solidify PGE’s plan to burn coal for at least ten more years, tying ratepayers to a fuel bound to grow more expensive; or it can reject the idea of passing the costs of keeping a coal plant open on to PGE’s ratepayers.

The timeframe on which Oregon’s Boardman Coal Plant is retired is likely to impact less advanced debates about coal plants all over the country, and to set a precedent for how to eliminate one of the nation’s most important causes of climate change. Yet whichever way Oregon decision-makers rule, that won’t change the fundamental equation: in a warming world, coal can no longer be seen as a cheap fuel.

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