It’s the first time in our recent history that uncertainty over the future of our electricity supply is so high.
Before we get too far ahead of ourselves, let’s look at what political and business leaders are saying about the future of coal in the Northwest.
“I would say the era of coal in the energy sector is coming to an end. It is by far the worst offender when it comes to carbon generation in the electric sector,” said Frank Lawson, the General Manager of the Eugene Water and Electric Board.
Maria Pope, the CEO of Portland General Electric, is also onboard.
“The benefits of a future powered by clean electricity are real. We can combat climate change, improve air and water quality and help create a more sustainable way of life. This vision isn’t just aspirational. It’s attainable and critical to Oregon’s future,” said Pope.
The Governors of Washington and Oregon also support the move away from coal.
Washington Governor Jay Inslee even ran for President on a platform built on addressing climate change.
“The future is not in coal. And we have moved past it. We are past coal,” Inslee said.
Oregon Governor Kate Brown agrees.
“We are moving forward toward a non-carbonized economy,” she said.
Environmental advocates began the push to kill coal a decade ago and say it is critically important to finish the job now.
Cesia Kearns from the Sierra Club says the era of coal is coming to an end.
“I think it is and I think it has to,” she said.
She is not alone.
“Absolutely support the closure of the coal plants on a schedule and with a plan that maintains the reliability of the system,” said Nicole Hughes, Executive Director of Renewables Northwest.
That future reliability is something we all should care about very much.
If the electric system is reliable the lights will turn on every time you hit the switch. If it is not reliable, sometimes you’ll hit the switch but get no light.
Coal may be dirty, but it is reliable. The lights always come on when powered by coal.
However, over the next eight years, 12 coal plants across the West will shut down and take a huge, dependable block of electricity out of the system.
The plants range geographically from Centralia, Wash., to Southeastern Montana, North Central Nevada, Wyoming and Boardman, Oregon.
Combined they generate an enormous amount of electricity: 4,800 megawatts. That’s enough power to turn on the lights for 3.8 million homes every instant the coal plants are running.
Filling that gap is no easy task.
Concern over the future without coal drew a crowd of utility leaders from around the Northwest to a meeting in Portland in October. The gathering was called by the Northwest Power Pool.
Based in Portland, the Power Pool formed 70 years ago to help major power utilities coordinate their activities. It is a nonprofit corporation made up of the biggest utilities in the Northwest.
And sometimes when a problem looms on the horizon, the Power Pool pulls the industry together to try and find a solution.
One of the main speakers at the October gathering was Chelan County PUD General Manager Steve Wright, a man who spent decades working in executive positions and who probably knows more about electricity and the Northwest power system than anyone else alive.
He agrees coal powered electricity is on the way out and that the gap is a problem.
“Headed toward zero, certainly over the course of the next five to 10 years,” Wright said.
I asked, “And when that goes to zero will there be enough power to replace it?”
“Well, I think that’s what this conference is about. Our forecasts say that we’re going to have significant problems,” said Wright.
When Wright talks about the forecasts, he means thousands of computerized scenarios run by a government agency called the Northwest Power and Conservation Council.
Congress set up the council to manage both the power needs of the Northwest and the environmental needs of fish and wildlife along the Columbia River and its tributaries.
One critical task the council handles is running those computerized scenarios to get an idea whether there will be enough electricity to meet demand during a worst-case scenario five years into the future.
It is called a Loss of Load Probability.
The forecast takes in to consideration all announced closures of coal plants or other sources of power planned for retirement. On the other side, only projects which are sited and licensed are counted as additions to the power supply.
The council, and much of the Northwest power industry, consider the power supply adequate if the Loss of Load Probability is 5% or less.
In a presentation on September 18, 2019, the council found the Loss of Load Probability in 2024 is 33%.
That number included the closing of the following coal plants: Centralia 2, Bridger 1 and 2, North Valmy 2.
A later, more conservative estimate found the Loss of Load Probability at 26% by the year 2026.
Their documents show a shortfall could last six hours in the summer and up to 23 hours in the winter.
Either way, it’s a number that shocks many in the industry. It means that every three or four times the worst-case scenarios are run, the region runs out of power.
“And that is pretty much unprecedented,” said Wright.