Burning coal to create electricity kept the lights on in the Pacific Northwest for decades.
Now, the major utility companies are turning away from coal, pushed by political and legal action, falling costs of renewable energy and a desire to help fight global warming.
It creates a historic change for not only the utilities, but also for the missions of people they serve. It also creates a fair amount of risk.
Will there be enough electricity to fill the gap created by the loss of coal?
It is a question with profound implications and one that leaders in the industry are closely studying.
So far, the answer is nobody knows for sure.
Chapter one: Dirty, but reliable
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.
Chapter two: Left in the dark
The dates when that Loss of Load could happen are not far away.
“Yeah, it’s coming up pretty fast. And in our world, where it takes a long time to build generating resources, to put in place demand response programs, to build transmission… Yeah, we are quite concerned about whether we have enough time to address this issue,” said Wright.
To make up for the lost power from coal, the big utility companies plan to build new wind farms, solar plants and battery storage, as well as work on ways to lower customer use during the highest demand for electricity.
Each utility created its plan independently. Many expect to, in an emergency shortage, buy excess power from other generators on the open market.
That plan has one big flaw when examined system-wide: If everyone does the same thing at the same time it could wipe out the supply.
It’s sort of like homeowners rushing to buy generators from the same few stores as a storm approaches. Pretty soon the stores will be empty, and someone will be left in the dark.
The result could lead to skyrocketing prices for electricity or something the Northwest has not experienced in modern times: rolling blackouts.
The last time the Northwest came close to rolling blackouts, Wright ran the Bonneville Power Administration. The BPA is a federal agency that sells the electricity generated by federal dams.
In 2001, a historic drought limited the amount of electricity the dams could produce. The Northwest did not have enough power to meet demand and faced the real potential of rolling blackouts.
“Now, it’s been a long time. And I worry that people have forgotten about that. Or moved on and done other things,” Wright said.
But Wright remembers.
The protests in May of 2001 were widely covered by the media.
“Do the right thing! Do the right thing!” chanted aluminum smelter workers as they tried to save their jobs.
“You know, it’s been close to 20 years since then,” said Wright. “But I was in charge of the Bonneville Power Administration at that point and I was confronted with extraordinarily difficult and even moral challenges I would say.”
Wright’s emergency plan was to buy back power the BPA had already sold to the aluminum industry then cut them off for two years.
A woman at the May 2001 protest asked a reporter, “How are they going to do something in two years? They won’t open up again. They’ll just shut down!” She said her husband worked at the aluminum plant for 32 years.
Wright took the stage in front of protesters that day.
“It’s not my goal—it’s not the goal of this agency to put the aluminum industry out of business in this region,” he told them.
But as he reflects back on it now, it’s clear that is exactly what happened.
“We basically put 5,000 aluminum workers out of work. We shut down the aluminum industry because we didn’t have enough power to serve them,” said Wright.
It’s something he will never forget.
“It was the most scaring event of my career and even of my life, I would say. To go through that period… Being in a position of having to make those choices.”
Chapter three: An early warning
Remember that Loss of Load Probability forecast, the chance the lights will not turn on?
It’s higher now for the year 2026 than it was before the Northwest energy crisis hit in 2000 and 2001.
Joe Hoerner was in the middle of it too, as an energy manager for one of the aluminum companies.
“It was a little crazy,” he recalled. “It was something that I wouldn’t want to live through again.”
Hoerner now works for PacifiCorp as a Senior Vice President. Part of his job is to watch over the power grid.
He’ll do everything he can to make sure there is enough power when the coal plants go away.
But Hoerner is worried about the current forecast.
“It makes me very nervous. It’s very significant compared to where we’ve been historically, you know, down in the single digits for the most part. So, I think it would make any utility operator very nervous to have that staring at them and know that’s a real possibility in the future,” said Hoerner.
The possibility raised its ugly head in the spring of 2019.
Over four days in March, a number of factors, including extra cold weather and low natural gas supplies, sent a shockwave through the West Coast energy system.
“In March we saw prices that normally might be in the $40 a megawatt hour skyrocket to over $900 a megawatt hour,” said Lawson. “That was alarming to us, but it’s an early indication that we have to pay attention to the balance between source and supply.”
Chapter four: Harnessing the wind
If a future without coal means more electricity from renewable sources, I wanted to see those renewables up close and learn how much electricity they can really make.
I went to the Leaning Juniper wind farm, a PacifiCorp plant near Arlington, Oregon.
It has 67 state-of-the-art wind turbines which put out a combined 100 megawatts of electricity when conditions are right, enough to power 80,000 homes each moment they are producing electricity.
PacifiCorp just finished a $100-million upgrade on the turbines here.
Tim Hemstreet from PacifiCorp said the turbines can start making power with a wind as low as 7 mph and will keep working all the way up to 30 mph.
At 60 mph the turbines automatically shut down and go into safe mode.
The big tubes that hold the turbines up are hollow. I got to climb inside one to the very top, wearing lots of safety gear.
The compartment is cramped as you might expect, the room mostly holds a big generator.
When the turbine blades spin the generator makes electricity.
There is also a small door that opens to the very top.
I got to poke my head out briefly. But the wind was howling at 35 mph, even making the tower slightly sway.
I did not stay out long.
The machines are impressive, but there is one big challenge with wind: It does not always blow.
Though it blasted hard enough on the day I visited to force us into the shelter of the car for an interview.
“Which is great for us because it means it’s a great day to make renewable energy with wind,” said Hemstreet as he and I sat in his car and talked.
The reality is wind farms, while renewable and sustainable, are not very reliable.
“On average a project like this operates about a third of the time producing full power,” said Hemstreet.
So the 100 megawatts is only 100 megawatts some of the time.
The wind farm on average produces enough power for about 30,000 homes according to PacifiCorp.
And the electricity generated here must be used when its produced. It cannot be stored, although in the future batteries may change that.
Critics have pointed out the turbines also create dangerous obstacles for birds and bats.
Chapter five: Solar, hydro and gas
Another renewable power source is solar, but solar farms in Oregon make up less than 1% of the electricity generated.
Still, solar has many supporters.
“Even though it’s still a small piece of the mix it's growing pretty quickly,” said Bruce Barney, the PGE Manager of Customer Specialized Programs.
I visited a solar array owned by PGE behind the Baldock rest stop off Interstate 5, near Interstate 205.
Its 7,000 panels make about 1.5 megawatts of power, enough for 1,200 homes.
But solar is still a small part of the answer for now.
The West also leans heavily on dams in the Columbia and other rivers. Hydro power can make up as much as 60% of our electricity.
But dams have their own issues.
The Northwest energy crisis of 2000 and 2001 was largely driven by an historic drought.
In low water years dams are not able to generate as much power.
Which brings us to natural gas.
It is not renewable and about half as dirty as coal, but it is very reliable.
I visited the big PGE plant near Clatskanie. It’s called Port Westward 1 and 2, and can make as much as 649 megawatts, enough for a half-million homes.
They make electricity by burning natural gas sent to it through an underground pipeline from Canada.
It’s loud inside the plant. Burning the gas boils water into steam, which spins a huge turbine to make electricity.
It looks like a massive jet engine from the outside.
Natural gas plants are called “dispatchable” in the industry. That means they can be quickly turned on or off when needed. It is a crucial difference from the renewables that depend on mother nature to make electricity.
PGE reports the Port Westward plants emit roughly 1 million metric tons of carbon dioxide each year.
For comparison, PGE’s Boardman coal plant emits about 1.5 million tons of carbon dioxide each year.
“That is correct. Yeah, so there’s always going to be emissions when you are combusting some source of energy,” said Port Westward Plant and Operations manager, Mark White.
White believes he’s as much an environmentalist as anyone.
“Working at a coal plant or a gas plant, people say you can’t be an environmentalist if you work at a plant. Actually, I am. I can do more in a day by making this plant more efficient, operating efficiently than I could any day driving an electric car, if I drove that the whole year,” said White.
He added that in his previous job in Hawaii he did in fact drive an electric car.
Chapter six: 'As big as you can get'
In a future where there are no coal plants and no gas fired plants, there is no dependable power or reliable power.
It’s a real problem.
I took the issue to Arne Olson. He’s not part of any utility company but his firm, Energy+Environmental Economics, studies electricity supplies to help give the utilities an objective look at what is possible.
I asked, “You’ve got the coal plants going down – you’ve got local governments restricting natural gas plants and electricity needs going up all at the same time. How do you make that gap?”
“It’s a real challenge that I think utilities are facing all over the country,” Olson said.
Olson’s company looked for the same answer we’re after: Will there be enough power in the Northwest when coal goes away?
The answer? It's unclear.
“Especially, utilities in the most forward-looking districts with the most forward-looking executives and boards are grappling with this exact challenge and they don’t have a good answer today. Except that we need to keep building natural gas fired power plants to keep the lights on during those multi-day periods of low wind and solar production and high demands,” said Olson.
Right now, there are no new gas fired power plants in the permitting phase in Washington and only one in Oregon. The Oregon plant’s construction date keeps getting pushed back.
One hopeful force is the speed in which new technologies are being invented to help renewables.
Commercial batteries, for example, can only store six hours’ worth of power now, but that seems sure to improve.
“We’re seeing technology change almost overnight – battery storage—all the different types of things that we’re doing on our system. I think five years from now I personally feel a lot of that is going to be outdated and we’ll see new technology,” said Hoerner.
The energy makeup of the West is changing fast. There is no doubt that coal is going away and it’s unlikely anything will stop that.
It is what most customers want.
But the shift away from coal to a bigger reliance on renewables brings significant risks.
“Do I think people understand the potential consequences of this right now?” Wright asked. “Generally, no. Am I surprised at that? No. Do I hope we can get people’s attention? Yes I do.”
“There’s a lot at stake here. And it’s not just about money and it’s not just about whether the lights go out for an hour or two or something like that. It’s much more significant than that. The human consequences here are as big as you can get.”