MAC/20: Mines and Communities

How Oregon can generate a low-carbon future by going coal-free

Published by MAC on 2012-05-01

How Oregon can generate a low-carbon future by going coal-free

By Angus Duncan

15 April 2012

Last month the Environmental Protection Agency set carbon emissions limits on new coal plants. Environmental groups swooned. Coal executives ground their teeth. It's progress, sort of. The EPA announcement, while welcome, contrasts sharply with last year's decision, by Portland General Electric and the Oregon Environmental Quality Commission, to terminate coal operations at the Boardman power plant by 2020.

The Boardman decision, arrived at collaboratively, moves Oregon decisively toward a reliable, low-carbon, coal-free power system. The EPA's new rule is a largely empty gesture that affects only new conventional coal plants -- although no one is proposing to build these anymore. Effectively, the EPA is closing the barn door after the livestock have all whinnied, mooed and grunted their way out.

Only six years ago the U.S. Department of Energy was anticipating a "coal resurgence," counting 150 new coal plants planned across the country (including 11 in the Pacific Northwest and 26 more in the Intermountain West states). Today, no new coal plants are proposed in our region, and fewer than 15 are still on drawing boards nationally.

The U.S. Energy Information Administration's 2012 "Outlook" projects a 5 percent decline in coal-fired generation (as the oldest, least-efficient plants close) and a drop in coal's share of electricity generation from 46 percent to 39 percent by 2035.

If you care about slowing the growth of carbon emissions, this is good news even if the EPA rule is largely meaningless.

But if you care about decreasing carbon emissions, consistent with what climate science tells us is needed, it falls far short. In fact, most existing coal plants will continue to operate. The older, smaller coal facilities that do close will be replaced by natural gas generation; and while these new gas-combustion turbines are far more carbon-efficient than even the best coal plants, there will also be more of them, producing about 30 percent more electricity by 2035 and increasing the market share of natural gas generation from 24 percent to 27 percent.

In the same period, renewables such as wind, solar and biomass are expected to increase their market share from 10 percent to 16 percent.

So, more renewables, more gas, about the same amount of coal. What does that do to overall electric-utility carbon emissions by 2035, when they need to be 50 percent lower than they are today? Nothing. Nada. Zilch. They stay just about where they are today (to be precise, the EIA scenario has 2035 utility carbon emissions about 6 percent higher than in 2010, and 2 percent below their 2005 peak; effectively, no change).

We can do better than that. We have to do way better than that if we are to at least blunt the most severe impacts that climate change promises to bring our way.

And we can. The Boardman decision gives us the opportunity to design a new power system based not on single, large, fossil-fueled generators -- coal or gas -- but on a diverse array of efficiency and renewable technologies, backed up by a new class of gas generators that can ramp up quickly when the wind dies and back off again when breezes freshen and the sun shines.

This is a future that stakeholders are committed to exploring, with PGE and state regulators, in the utility's next planning cycle. It is not a guaranteed outcome -- it will be tested, appropriately, against rigorous reliability and cost criteria -- but this time carbon outcomes will be a critical benchmark in the planning cycle.

If we succeed, then Boardman can be a national model for finding cost-effective ways to ramp down the nation's 1,100 currently operating coal units and achieving the low-carbon outcome that the EPA rule-making muffed this time. Oregon can lead, prudently, in moving electricity production to a low-carbon future -- a reliable and cost-conscious future that will mirror, in many ways, the past 70 years of the region's reliance on low-carbon, renewable hydroelectricity.

Angus Duncan is director of the Bonneville Environmental Foundation

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