PGE Acknowledges Coal Plant’s a Problem – But Proposed Date for Shutdown Falls Short

Over the last few days, many of us involved in the struggle to end Oregon’s coal dependence have found ourselves in a state of justified excitement tempered with a dose of realism.  The reason? An announcement by Portland General Electric (PGE) that the company is looking at shutting down the Boardman Coal Plant by the year 2020.  I’d like to start right off by saying it’s a huge victory that PGE has acknowledged the need to phase out coal at Boardman eventually; this would not have happened without the work of hundreds of people who sent their comments to PGE, testified at hearings this past fall, and turned up the heat on PGE in other ways.  But our work isn’t over yet.  2020 is still a decade away, and Oregon activists are even now preparing to enter a new phase of this fight, in which we continue to push PGE to shut down Boardman by the year 2014.

The Sierra Club and its allies originally zeroed in on 2014 as the date by which burning coal at Boardman must end, partly because transitioning the plant off coal by 2014 would mean PGE wouldn’t have to spend $600 million in pollution retrofits by that time to comply with state and federal clean air rules.  2014 is also close enough that closing the plant by that time would give us real of eliminating Oregon’s largest point source of greenhouse emissions soon enough to actually do some good. 

PGE apparently believes it can convince federal and state regulators to let it get away with fewer pollution controls than would originally have been required under the Clean Air Act, if it shuts the Boardman Plant down by 2020.  It’s unclear how realistic an assumption this is, and I certainly don’t have the requisite knowledge of the legal system to make an educated guess on whether PGE will get its way on this.  What’s important to keep in mind though is that, even if the company obtains permission to keep polluting until 2020, that’s no victory for the people of Oregon.  That means not only ten more years of Boardman spewing not just greenhouse gas pollution, but the several other pollutants which the control equipment originally mandated before 2015 were intended to reduce. 

The still larger issues is that we simply can’t afford ten more years of burning coal at Boardman; with the world approaching climate tipping points, years and even months have become a matter of life and death.  Settling for a 2020 shutdown date rather than 2014 would mean settling for 30 million extra tons of carbon dioxide emitted into the atmosphere.  And that’s unacceptable.

The Oregon Sierra Club has made the decision to continue pushing for a 2014 shutdown date for the Boardman Plant, and I’ll keep this blog posted as the campaign continues to gain momentum in 2010.  For now though, here are a few thoughts on how PGE’s announcement really has given us the upper hand:

First, from this moment on PGE will no longer be able to argue that it can’t in principle meet customers’ needs without the Boardman Plant.  Just a few months ago, we were hearing from PGE that Boardman had to be kept on-line as a “baseload” electricity source – this despite some big holes in the whole concept of an essential electricity baseload.  Now PGE itself has torpedoed that argument; they’ve admitted that, actually, they could get along without Boardman by 2020.  PGE will almost certainly try to hand us another ultimatum, claiming 2020 is the earliest shutdown date possible and that 2014 can’t be done.  All such claims should be taken with a large grain of salt; as this week showed, a utility’s definition of the “possible” can change with a few days’ notice. 

Second, grassroots activism gets results and can change a utility’s mind.  There’s no doubt in my mind that PGE would still be hemming and hawing over the idea of closing Boardman at all, were it not for the grassroots campaign spearheaded by the Sierra Club, that’s been putting more and more pressure on the utility.  It would be a mistake to lessen the pressure now.  Indeed, it’s now all the more important that we keep pushing PGE to do the right thing, make sure federal and state regulators don’t let the coal plant off the hook, and continue to build this movement.  As always, we should acknowledge when a utility takes a step in the right direction – but also refuse a compromise that would lock Oregon into ten more years of burning coal at Boardman.

Finally, if you think the intricacies of this debate apply only to Oregon then think again.  Utilities and regulators across the country will be watching this struggle to see what happens next, and whatever does happen could be precedent setting.  Oregon has a chance to build up its green economy by saying no to coal, and to lead the nation in a wave of coal plant closures.  Expect further updates soon.

12 Responses to “PGE Acknowledges Coal Plant’s a Problem – But Proposed Date for Shutdown Falls Short”

  1. 1 Janet Jan 17th, 2010 at 7:12 pm

    The Oregon Chapter of the Sierra Club is but one of many entities that have been pressuring PGE for years to deal with Boardman. To overstate the role that the Club has played is to risk alienating individuals, ratepayer advocacy groups, tribes, federal officials, a select few in state government, and the attorneys that have collectively invested hundreds and hundreds of hours working to force action.

  2. 2 nickengelfried Jan 17th, 2010 at 7:39 pm

    Hi Janet,

    You’re absolutely right that many, many groups and individuals deserve the credit for what leverage we’ve gained so far over PGE. I focus on the Sierra Club in my post because they’re the group I’m most familiar with, and I personally think we couldn’t have gotten as far as we have in this struggle without them. But that’s not to diminish in any way the valuable work of other groups involved in this effort in one way or another. This step towards victory has been won by remarkable coalition of voices, and it’s my hope that a similar coalition will continue to press PGE to go all the way and transition away from burning coal at Boardman by 2014.

  3. 3 Janet Jan 18th, 2010 at 2:30 am

    Even Environment Oregon, a group that hasn’t been much involved with pressuring PGE over Boardman over the years (compared to years of attention and work by the Sierra Club, Friends of the Columbia Gorge, Columbia Riverkeeper, NEDC, the Yakama Nation, the city of Portland and many others) is jumping on the bandwagon.

    Their message is at odds with the Sierra Club:

    “Press Statement: Environment Oregon Commits to Work with PGE to Close the Boardman Coal Plant between 2014 and 2020″
    Today at 9:37am

    Looks like they are carving out a more “reasonable” message- 2019 closure is aok with them. How noble of them to commit to “work with PGE” now that much of the hard work has already been done.

  4. 4 Tony Wildish Jan 18th, 2010 at 3:08 am

    I’m surprised you don’t think there is a need for baseload generation capacity. Even if ‘baseload’ is interpreted to mean demand, not generation, that still doesn’t mean you can do it with renewables. I live in France, and we, like the rest of Europe, have just come through a long, cold, windless period during which any failure of the electricity supply could easily have cost lives.

    Wind and solar would have been useless, any stored capacity would have been used up quickly with the extra demand, so the entire peak power needs would have to come from other sources. Having that much redundancy in the system by having peak-load capacity in each of several renewables would be prohibitively expensive, and environmentally disastrous. Why not build safe, clean, reliable baseload generation capacity if we can?

    I think it’s great that PGE are planning to shut their coal plant. If they wanted the cheap and sensible option for providing electricity after it closes, they would be looking at putting a nuclear generator in place of the coal burner, just swapping the heat-source and keeping the rest of the infrastructure. Then you could keep the lights on in winter, and the air-conditioning on in summer, no problem.

    Before someone tells me that nuclear is worse than coal, please, take a look at for an explanation of modern nuclear power. It’s the only clean, safe, reliable power source available for the future. The TCASE series of posts on the same site is also an eye-opener for those who support renewables.

  5. 5 nickengelfried Jan 18th, 2010 at 3:42 am

    As a follow up to Janet’s last comment, I think it’s to be expected that different organizations and individuals will choose somewhat different strategies now that PGE is beginning to move in the right direction. I don’t know the details of Environment Oregon’s position, but do know they are great folks doing amazing things, and respect their opinion.

    The Sierra Club has chosen to keep on pressing for a 2014 shutdown date, and I have to say that’s the response that feels right to me. But just because another group has chosen a different approach doesn’t mean they haven’t thought it through extensively, or that they aren’t filling a valuable role in the dialogue. I hope that the different groups working on this can remain united in pushing for the fastest shutdown date possible through one means or another, rather than wasting energy on in-fighting. Fortunately, I feel confident the remarkable coalition that’s developed around this issue will be able to continue to work together to shut down Oregon’s only coal plant, and clear the skies of the Northwest.

  6. 6 nickengelfried Jan 18th, 2010 at 5:43 pm

    Hi Tony,

    As far as the “baseload” issue goes, all I can say is please read the article I linked to when I discussed the baseload concept in my post. The really important thing here is that whether or not you believe some kind of baseload electricity generation is necessary, PGE’s own actions clearly show the Boardman Plant is not an intrinsically necessary part of their power grid. They’ve admitted they could do without the plant in 2020, meaning the old argument that you can’t power Oregon without the Boardman Plant is out the window.

    As far as nuclear goes, I’m not going to get into an in-depth discussion about replacing the Boardman Plant with a nuclear generator, mainly because that option is so far from even being on the table that it just doesn’t warrant the time. I know you’re not from around here Tony, but trust me: the state of politics in Oregon ensures we will not be building new nuclear plants within our borders anytime soon, and certainly not at the Boardman facility. You can argue about whether or not that’s a good thing – personally I believe it is – but that won’t change the fact that building a new nuclear plant in this region just isn’t realistic.

    Finally, let’s just assume for a minute that you’re right, and it really is impossible to power a region completely on wind and solar energy. Well, wind and solar aren’t the only renewable power sources in the world. The Northwest United States has amazing potential to develop geothermal power, but we’ve barely even begun to tap it. Geothermal energy doesn’t depend on the wind blowing or the sun shining. But again, the real issue here is the Boardman Coal Plant; and the fact that PGE is considering shutting down the plant in 2020 clearly shows Boardman is not an intrinsically needed part of our power grid.

  7. 7 Tony Wildish Jan 19th, 2010 at 4:47 pm

    I did follow the links in the post, and I understand the point that was being made about demand and supply. However, even if baseload generation is not strictly necessary, it may still be desirable, as a cheaper and cleaner option than other sources.

    If we don’t have baseload generation capacity, and generate everything through renewables, we have to seriously consider the (financial and environmental) cost of building, deploying, operating and maintaining such facilities, and of getting the electricity from where we make it to where people use it (which often needs new grid infrastructure). That sort of thing is not often mentioned when renewables are discussed. I for one was rather surprised when I started reading sites like the one I mentioned earlier and found out just how high those costs are. Any replacement has to be cheaper than coal, or it won’t happen. Renewables just don’t make the grade when we try to scale them up.

    Nor is it even clear that renewables can be scaled up as much as would be required. Geothermal does sound great, but a geothermal project in Switzerland was abandoned recently after it generated earthquakes.

    Eliminating the need for baseload generation capacity may be possible through improved efficiency if we only look at current demand. But to truly kick the fossil-fuel habit we will need to electrify our industries and our vehicles too. Even with improved efficiency, displacing fossil-fuels with clean electricity is very likely to increase the base level of demand. Unless the capacity is there to serve it cheaply, economics will make sure it never happens.

    You’re right that I don’t know the political landscape in Oregon. I have a friend living there, so I do have an interest in what goes on. I will be very happy to see the coal plant close as soon as possible, and I wish you luck with it. However, I seriously doubt that you can meet your future needs with renewables alone.

  8. 8 nickengelfried Jan 19th, 2010 at 5:01 pm

    Thanks for writing in again, Tony. You make some valid points about the baseload issue – but perhaps the most important thing to keep in mind is that in places like Oregon we’ve barely even begun to explore how far we can go toward eliminating fossil fuel baseloads. Closing down Boardman is the first step, and the fact that PGE has admitted they can get along without that coal plant is encouraging. Maybe we’ll need to retain some non-coal fossil fuel generation, and maybe not, but either way Oregon can make a lot more headway than it has so far with renewables and efficiency.

    Finally, I’d be cautious about taking a single case where renewables haven’t worked so well and generalizing that too far. You can mess up with almost any power source if you try hard enough, and using the problems encountered with one geothermal plant as a stand-alone argument against geothermal power seems problematic. I should hardly need to point out that if this same logic (accidents can happen if you get it wrong, so the technology’s unlikely to work on a large scale) were applied to coal or nuclear power, we’d have to abandon both those power sources pretty quickly.

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About Nick

Nick is a freelance writer, climate activist, and a graduate student at the University of Montana. He got his start in activism by helping to establish a new campus recycling system at Portland Community College; since then he has organized to stop fossil fuel projects and open up space for clean energy in Oregon, Washington, and Montana. Nick is currently working with activists throughout the Greater Northwest to protect Northwest communities from coal export projects. When not in school or organizing for a clean energy future, he can be found hiking in the natural areas around Missoula, bird watching, or writing a novel.

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