Posted on 23 February 2013.
Erika Shriner doesn’t like Colstrip, Montana. She has nothing against the town, but she doesn’t care at all for the open pit strip mine and the coal-burning power plant of the same name. According to Puget Sound Energy, Colstrip currently provides 20 percent of the company’s power, mining and burning coal to generate electricity for PSE’s more than one million customers.
Shriner is one of the founding members of Coal-Free Bainbridge, which falls under the umbrella of Coal-Free Washington, which is part of Beyond Coal, a Sierra Club initiative. The goal of all of these organizations and sub-organizations is the same: to pressure power companies to stop relying so heavily on coal-generated power. Beyond Coal and its member groups are devoting their time to 100 days of action between the Presidential Inauguration and Earth Day.
An aerial photograph of Colstrip by David T. Hanson from his exhibition. Learn more at http://www.davidthanson.net/.
The Bainbridge group has been employing education tactics for about a year, including hosting information tables at the Fourth of July parade and at the Bluegrass Festival. For their 100 days of action, they are focusing on Tuesday evening “living billboards” for ferry drive-off passengers. A living billboard is a montage of people with signs and costumes conveying their message quickly for people driving by. One of their best assets is Coal Man, a Deathlike, shrouded creature carrying a sign that reads, “I’m Lethal.”
Shriner said that it used to be rare for them to run into anyone who knew how involved PSE was with coal. But now they get friendly gestures of recognition from drivers, and she feels they are making progress in terms of raising awareness. She hopes to get “as many people as possible” to the Utility and Transportation Commission hearing in April. She explained that the UTC is primarily concerned with the cost of utilities and wonders whether they shouldn’t also have an obligation to look at all costs of coal.
The “True” Costs of Coal
She expects the same of PSE: “PSE has got to start reflecting the true cost of coal.” What she means by the true cost is the cost of lawsuits, health costs, the cost of air and water pollution, the cost of carbon emissions, and other costs associated with coal-related problems. She feels that coal looks cheap on paper because these costs are not usually factored into the equation. She said, “We’re the ones paying for it, so it’s critical customers voice their concern. In the not too distant future, the actual cost will be clear.”
The Sierra Club is sending a memo to PSE Board Chairman William Ayer to convey this message. Shriner said they sent a similar memo to CEO Kimberly Harris, but they never received a response. Inside Bainbridge did get a response, a swift one, from a spokesperson for PSE, Roger Thompson.
Thompson said that, with coal providing such a sizable percentage of total power supply, “simply shutting that off would create a significant reliability issue.” On the other hand, he agrees that finding ways to replace coal is the way to go: “Relying more on renewable energy is a goal we share wholeheartedly. Our record proves that. We operate three large windfarms in eastern Washington.” He explained that PSE is the Pacific Northwest’s largest utility producer of renewable energy and the second-largest utility generator of wind power in the United States.
Another reason Thompson doesn’t see PSE cutting off its reliance on coal any time soon is that, he said, “coal is the cheapest way to acquire energy.” But is it truly cheap? What are the extra costs Shriner is talking about?
Beyond Coal reports the following statistics about coal:
- Coal pollution is responsible for 13,000 premature deaths every year, more than $100 billion in annual health costs, and over 200,000 asthma attacks annually.
- Coal burning is responsible for nearly one-third of U.S. carbon emissions—the air pollution that is the main contributor to climate disruption.
- Mining companies dump millions of tons of rubble and toxic waste into the streams and valleys below the mining sites.
- In the United States, more than 40 percent of people live in areas with unhealthy levels of air pollution. Pollution from coal-fired power plants leads to smog (or ozone), a toxic compound and a dangerous irritant.
- Burning coal releases toxic mercury that rains down into rivers and streams. This poison then accumulates in the food chain, eventually making its way into our bodies when we eat contaminated fish.
- Every year, the nation’s coal plants produce 140 million tons of coal ash pollution, the toxic byproduct that is left over after the coal is burned.
- Coal dust and diesel exhaust from coal trains and cargo ships can cause serious long-term health problems like lung and heart disease and cancer. The wide-ranging health dangers of coal dust include exposure to toxic heavy metals like mercury and increased rates of asthma, especially in children. Burlington Northern Sante Fe (BNSF) railroad estimates up to 500 pounds of coal can be lost in the form of dust from each rail car en route.
Colstrip in particular is a heavy offender. That’s because, as The Huffington Post reports, the Colstrip plant was grandfathered in under the Clean Air Act. That exempted it from having to comply with tougher pollution control standards unless and until the plant’s operator made upgrades, modernizing it.
When questioned about Shriner’s argument that it actually isn’t that cheap if you take into consideration all
the costs, Thompson emphasized the company’s need “to provide our customers with safe, reliable energy,” for which there are currently no existing alternatives to Colstrip. He also explained that there are regulatory requirements in our state for energy providers to supply the cheapest
energy to customers.In other words, these extra costs are not being taken into consideration on paper or in an official way by, say, state or federal government, and, therefore, coal still looks cheap to customers and regulators.
PSE’s Integrated Resources Plan
Thompson said that PSE will be coming out with its Integrated Resource Plan in May. They update and publish this guide every two years. It projects 20 years into the future, analyzing resources available to the company and considering potential company responses to potentially evolving scenarios. For example, he said the IRP might consider the cost of replacing Colstrip with renewable energy. Another scenario the IRP might consider, he said, is what the company might do if very strict emissions controls were imposed by the government. He cautioned that the IRP is “not a directive.” Instead, he said, it “anticipates need and growth and restraints.”
Of course, Beyond Coal and other organizations working to achieve wider use of renewable energy might use the IRP as the basis for a conversation about how exactly PSE might change its policies, not necessarily in reaction to future scenarios but in response to the very real one of coal creating health and environmental problems. If the company is agile enough to anticipate problems and come up with solutions to them, why can’t it change the way it looks at the Colstrip scenario, seeing it as a problem, and solve it?
Thompson said, “It’s not a goal that we as a utility can reach overnight.” He added, “We will be acquiring more renewable energy in the future. We continue to assess our customers’ needs and resources on an ongoing basis.”
Of course, given the scenarios detailed by Beyond Coal and the current legislation pending against Colstrip (as many as seven lawsuits), unless the plant wins all of the suits, at the very least legal costs will soon be trickling down to customers, and this could change the perception that coal is the cheapest source of energy. In 2008, for example, the five corporations that then owned the Colstrip power plant agreed via a settlement to pay $25 million in response to a groundwater contamination lawsuit brought by Montana residents. (The plant is now owned by six corporations, one of which is PSE.)
Green Power Program
In the meantime, as Coal-Free Bainbridge’s living billboards share information about the costs of coal and as PSE develops alternative sources of energy, Thompson points out that there is something very real customers can do right now to reduce their reliance on coal-supplied energy: “A majority of our customers want to see cleaner energy and we share that. The Green Power Program is a way to get there.”
Customers can sign up for the program right now and elect to pay a little more for their energy, thereby guaranteeing it will be provided by renewable sources. The PSE website explains: “When you make your contribution of $4 to $12 a month, PSE buys clean energy on your behalf from independent producers in our region. Your commitment to purchase green power makes it possible for these energy innovators to secure funding, sustain their businesses, and create jobs—making a brighter, cleaner future for everyone.” To sign up go here.
Photos by Coal-Free Bainbridge, David T. Hanson, Emilian Robert Vicol, and elibeck.