Via the Great Falls Tribune:
Coal was cheap and plentiful in the United States in the 20th century, becoming a veritable King Coal for generating electricity.
In the 21st century, natural gas and nuclear power (absent a meltdown) are cleaner options, and so are solar and wind, although they are erratic sources of power and must be supplemented with other more reliable power. Coal may be headed for the dreaded bin of obsolescence someday.
But let’s pause a moment and get practical.
Coal plants still “are generating some pretty cheap electricity,” notes Montana Public Service Commissioner Travis Kavulla.
That’s a fact that can’t be ignored, even if coal will no longer be America’s favorite fuel in the long term.
After all, there is this issue of transition. Even the United States, one of the richest and most powerful nations on the planet, cannot suddenly announce it will shut down all coal plants.
It’s not that easy. For one thing, in making these changes, we don’t want to bankrupt businesses and make power costs truly onerous for residential users. And the transition will take decades, not months or a few years.
That’s why recent actions by the Washington state Legislature are of concern to the state of Montana, which has huge coal reserves in eastern Montana.
A few days ago, the Washington state Senate passed a bill to study how utilities in that state could be assisted in shutting down coal-fired power plants at Colstrip in Montana in which they own large shares. The Washington Senate favored a study, rather than language that would have directly assisted utility Puget Power & Light and allowed it to charge its plant shutdown costs to its ratepayers. The issue goes back to the Washington House to an uncertain fate.
“The wise thing for everyone is to hit the pause button,” Great Falls’ Kavulla suggested to us. He thinks this complex issue would be better handled by Washington’s regulatory body, the Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission, rather than by legislators. Kavulla also thinks new federal Environmental Protection Agency air pollution regulations expected to come out this summer could affect this debate.
Kavulla acknowledged the Colstrip plants won’t last forever and they will be retired someday, and that Montana mainly mines and exports coal to foreign customers, rather than burning it here. Both the PSC and Montana’s Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock have written Washington officials recently to express concern over the legislation.
In fact, coal is important in 2015 to Montana’s economy, to Montana residents and to the utilities that serve us.
“Colstrip Unit 4 is a real important part of our generation portfolio,” said Butch Larcombe, a spokesman for NorthWestern Energy, the state’s dominant utility. He said the company is “keeping a very close eye on” what’s happening in the state of Washington Legislature. Coal-fired electricity comprises 26 percent of NorthWestern Energy’s power sold to Montana customers.
Exactly what legislators in Washington, seeking to take a greener stance toward coal, will decide remains unclear. We agree that a cautious approach, coupled with cooperation among affected states including Washington and Montana, is warranted.
It would be foolish to start pulling the plug on all of these old coal-fired power plants before we know what power source would replace the electricity generated by coal. Consumers also have the right to know if they will face much higher power bills without coal as an option.
Let’s not make hasty decisions in the dark — or we could end up there.
— Tribune editorial board
See the article here.
- On March 16, 2015