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Washington state may play critical role in future of Colstrip po - KRTV News in Great Falls, Montana

Washington state may play critical role in future of Colstrip power plants

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As Montana debates the fate of coal-fired power plants in Colstrip, critical decisions on their future already are in motion – in Washington state.

Utilities that own half of Colstrip serve 1.5 million customers in Washington, and they’re coming under increasing political and economic pressure to move away from coal-fired power.

An initiative slated for Washington’s 2016 ballot would impose a carbon tax, increasing the cost of Colstrip-generated power in Washington by 25 percent or more.

And the Washington Legislature probably will consider a bill next year to outline how utility ratepayers in Washington can start transitioning away from coal-fired power.    

It all adds up to bad news for Colstrip’s two oldest plants, Units 1 and 2, which environmentalists are predicting will be closed within the decade.

“I think the writing has been on the wall for units 1 and 2, the two older units, for years,” says Anne Hedges, deputy director of the Montana Environmental Information Center, a longtime opponent of coal-fired power. “I think they don’t have much life left in them …

“The West Coast is looking at really high impacts, economic impacts, from climate change, and they are very concerned that continued carbon emissions are only going to make their economic hardship greater. So they are going to be interested in decreasing their alliance on fossil fuels.”

Supporters of the Colstrip plants aren’t conceding their demise, saying they are vital, well-maintained plants that still produce affordable, reliable power that’s needed in Montana, Washington and Oregon.

But even they acknowledge the storm clouds brewing in Washington state, and are taking steps to make their concerns known to Washington policymakers.

Just last week, several Montana lawmakers, union leaders and local officials hosted four Washington state representatives in Colstrip, where the guests toured the plants and spoke with Colstrip residents about the importance of the power plants to their town and livelihood.

“These people are really trying to figure out how to make this work, and none of them have a real appetite to just shut this down,” Montana state Sen. Duane Ankney, R-Colstrip, said of the Washington lawmakers. “I think we can keep things going down here for a while.”

The four plants in Colstrip employ about 370 people. Another 390 people work at the nearby coal mine that supplies the power plants.

Together, the plants have a capacity of about 2,100 megawatts of electricity. Puget Sound Energy, a Seattle-area utility with 1.1 million customers, owns one-third of that capacity, including half of Colstrip 1 and 2.

Avista Corp. and PacifiCorp, which have nearly 400,000 customers in Washington, own portions of Colstrip 3 and 4. Utilities serving Oregon and Montana own the remainder of the 3 and 4 plants.

Most observers say Colstrip 3 and 4, built in the 1980s, are more efficient, will be around for some time and are in no danger of closing any time soon.

Yet Colstrip 1 and 2, built in the 1970s, are the more likely candidates for closure in the not-too-distant future. Puget Sound splits the ownership of these plants with Talen Energy, the plant operator, which sells its electricity on the wholesale market to customers in Montana and the region.  

Talen spokesman Todd Martin in Berwick, Penn., says there is no closing date for Colstrip 1 or 2 and that anyone who says the plants are going away soon is engaging in “pure speculation.”

“We are focused on the delivery of value (to customers and shareholders) and not speculating on what will happen in the future,” he told MTN News.

However, Puget Sound Energy officials say they’re working with Washington lawmakers and others on a bill that would allow the utility to keep getting power from Montana “while exploring steps to initiate a partial transition away from coal.”

Details of any legislation are not yet available. Puget Sound gets 20 percent of its total electricity from Colstrip.

Company spokesman Ray Lane said in an email Friday that regulations on coal-fired power could lead to higher costs for customers, and that “doing nothing is a high-risk option.”

One potential regulation is Initiative 732, which would impose a $25-per-ton carbon tax on coal-fired power consumed in Washington state.

Organizers need signatures from 246,000 registered Washington voters by Dec. 31 to qualify the measure for 2016 ballot – and say they’re already at 330,000, giving them plenty of cushion if some of those are not valid.

Yoram Bauman, the founder of Carbon Washington, which is behind the effort, says I-732 supporters want to create financial incentives for utilities and consumers to abandon coal-fired power – wherever it comes from.

“The goal of the policy is to make market prices reflect true costs – costs associated with climate change,” says Bauman, an economist. “We feel like those costs should be accounted for in the market. That’s the way markets should work.”

While Montana is producing plenty of coal-fired power, it also has great wind-power potential, and if I-732 passes, that wind power will be even more attractive to utilities in Washington, he says.

Rep. Norma Smith, a Republican from Clinton, Wash., visited Colstrip last week along with three of her House colleagues.

She says she expects the 2016 Washington Legislature will consider bills to map out how Washington utilities can move away from coal-fired power – but it’s too early to know what they’ll look like.

Whatever the approach, Smith says she does not see a “sudden transition” away from Colstrip power.

“I believe that as we work together, Montana and Washington, we will find a win-win solution moving forward,” she told MTN News. “I think that will be my personal goal – some sort of orderly transition that is a win-win for Montana, the people who live there, and Washington state and the people who live in my communities.”

It’s important for Washington and Montana legislators and officials to maintain a dialogue, she adds.

Ankney says he believes Washington legislators will discover their consumers still need Colstrip power, for years to come.

“They can find out that they can’t live without some of this coal-fired generation – or not live with the means that they’ve been accustomed to,” he says. “The reality is, they’d better damn well be careful what they wish for.”

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