Clean Electricity Rule To Phase Out Fossil Fuel Plants Moves Closer To Passage In Washington

Colstrip power plant in Montana - Flicker-Creative Commons
Legislation passed by the Washington Senate could accelerate the closure of the coal-fired Colstrip power plant in eastern Montana, co-owned by Bellevue-based PSE and Spokane-based Avista Utilities. FLICKR PHOTO/SPOT US/RACHEL CERNANSKY (CC BY-SA 2.0)

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Electric utilities in Washington state would have to phase out all coal power, and eventually, natural gas-fired generation under a measure passed by the state Senate on Friday.

The 100 percent clean electricity mandate is a priority of Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee and environmental groups, but Republican critics decried it as a big rate increase in the making.

The measure would require utilities in Washington to stop buying electricity generated from coal by the end of 2025 — or face penalties. By 2045, all electricity on the grid would have to come from carbon-free sources, though that is now rendered more like a goal rather than a hard-and-fast rule.

Democrats, who control the state Senate, said the legislation responds to public demands to fight climate change.

“In a generation, when our children and grandchildren are living with the impacts of the decisions we have made or not made, they will ask us what we did in this moment,” said Sen. Marco Liias during Friday’s debate.

Republican senators called the 100 percent clean energy target “a guaranteed rate increase” and said it could lead to brownouts.

“This bill is going to raise the cost of energy to everybody,” thundered GOP Sen. Curtis King. “It is going to raise the cost of energy to the low income, those that can least afford it. But we’re going to do it because, ‘Oh, it’s the right thing to do.’ Even though this state is the best state in the country and one of the best areas in the world when it comes to renewable energy.”

Democratic Sen. Reuven Carlyle, the measure’s lead sponsor, downplayed the chance of big rate hikes by saying the energy industry is entering an era when renewable energy sources such as wind and solar are becoming cheaper than traditional fossil fuel electricity generation.

The measure passed on a party line vote of 28-19 and now moves to the state House for further consideration.

The Washington State Department of Commerce tracks the fuel mixes used by the more the 60 electric utilities in the state. The agency’s most recent tabulation shows that hydroelectric power generates two-thirds of electricity used by customers in Washington today. Adding in wind, nuclear, solar and other renewable generation raises the non-emitting share of Washington electricity sources to about 75 percent.

Fossil fuel-derived electricity currently comes from coal at 13 percent, natural gas at 11 percent and a marginal amount of oil.

Washington state is one of at least nine states considering 100 percent clean electricity generation measures in their legislatures this winter, according to the advocacy group Environment America. California and Hawaii previously passed 100 percent emissions-free electricity targets into law.

The state Senate vote happened on the same morning that Gov. Inslee officially launched a presidential campaign in Seattle. Inslee is making climate protection the central issue of his bid for the 2020 Democratic nomination.

The political backdrop crept into Friday’s debate in Olympia when Republicans suggested the vote was motivated by a desire to embellish the governor’s green credentials and national ambitions, to the detriment of ratepayers back home. That prompted Democratic Lt. Gov. Cyrus Habib, who presided over the debate, to warn senators against impugning the motives of their opponents.

Utility industry lobbyists watched the debate unfold from the Senate Gallery. Large utilities and industry associations have sought to include escape hatches or exemptions should the proposed policy leads to large rate increases or grid reliability problems.

The version that passed the Senate would present “operational and implementation challenges,” said Avista Utilities Senior Vice President for Energy Resources Jason Thackston in an prepared statement. Thackston said his Spokane-based company would continue to work with lawmakers collaboratively to come up with a law “that enables us to manage cost impacts on our customers and maintain system reliability.”

The only coal-fired electric power plant in Washington — TransAlta’s Centralia plant — has already agreed to stop burning coal by 2025. That means the December 2025 deadline to eliminate coal from Washington’s electric grid would mainly apply to electricity imports from out-of-state coal power plants.

Washington’s two biggest private utilities, Puget Sound Energy and Avista, take electricity from a large, co-owned coal-fired power plant in Colstrip, Montana.

Under pressure from climate activists, PSE has been pondering early retirement of at least some units of the Colstrip power plant. Avista’s current resource plan foresees Colstrip operating cost effectively well into the 2030s. Some Montana legislators who are worried about losing well-paid rural jobs at Colstrip have lobbed accusations of extraterratorial meddling at their Washington state counterparts.

Environmental groups, however, cheered the state Senate vote.

“Washington State families should be able to flip on the light switch and know that they’re helping to power a new clean economy,” said Rebecca Ponzio, a campaign director for the Environmental Priorities Coalition, in a news release Friday. “We look forward to working with the House of Representatives to get a bill to Gov. Inslee that makes Washington a national leader in adopting bold, effective and equitable solutions needed to meet the scale of the crisis.”

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