Faced with growing momentum to move Washington off of dirty coal power, the owner of the state’s only coal-fired power plant has begun circulating colorful brochures of lush fields and kids blowing pinwheels, aimed at convincing us that our most polluting power source is somehow clean and green.

outlet-flickr-grendelkhanBut what troubles me is the assertion throughout TransAlta’s literature that the Centralia plant “generates 10 percent of Washington’s power” or “is called upon to meet 10 percent of the state’s energy needs.”

This seems to suggest that 10 percent of the electricity that local utilities are buying to power our lights and microwaves and hair dryers is purchased from Centralia. That’s highly unlikely to be true, and here’s why:

  • Utilities in Washington state are now prohibited by law from entering into longterm power contracts with plants that release as much climate-warming pollution as Centralia does.
  • All the coal power bought on the spot market by Washington utilities in 2009 added up to 6.7 percent of the electricity used here*, according to fuel mix disclosure reports, and that would include power from even larger coal plants in the region.

The Centralia coal plant may well generate something close to 10 percent of the electricity physically produced in Washington state. (The latest EIA data says 8 percent, but close enough.) But that hardly means it’s being bought and used by local utilities. Centralia is a “merchant” plant, which means it has no particular customers it’s obligated to serve. It simply sells power to whoever is willing to pay, whether that’s a power marketer or a utility in California or Arizona.

In truth, no one knows where Centralia’s power is going, because the plant’s Canadian owner TransAlta has chosen not to disclose that information. (I contacted the company twice before writing this post in an attempt to to have someone explain the 10 percent figure and find out where Centralia’s power goes, but haven’t received a response.)

  • But we do know that since 2008, Washington utilities haven’t been able to legally enter into or renew contracts of five years or more with polluting coal plants. So while there could theoretically be some shorter-term or grandfathered contracts out there, Washington utilities can’t use Centralia for long-term power purchases in the future.

    That leaves the spot market, which quickly becomes a largely untraceable morass as power is bundled and sold through middlemen. But a fairly reasonable estimate of those purchases – Washington’s fuel mix disclosure process that requires utilities to report each year on where their power comes from – indicates that all the coal power bought on the spot market from any plant in the country the doesn’t come close to 10 percent.

    By constantly saying that Centralia produces 10 percent of Washington’s power, TransAlta plants a seed that the state relies so heavily on the plant that we can’t do without it. But it’s clear that this coal plant isn’t going to run forever. TransAlta itself engaged in negotiations with Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire about shutting the plant down by 2025. Legislation will be introduced in Olympia this session to transition the plant off coal as soon as 2015.

    Clearly, Washington utilities don’t need to buy Centralia’s dirty power. What we’re really talking about is what role the plant plays in keeping the grid stable on the western side of the Cascades. Transmission experts are working as we speak to determine what would happen and how we can adapt if the coal plant were to go offline permanently. So instead of using scary statistics that imply we can’t live without an outdated coal plant that even its owners want to retire, let’s make the necessary investments to keep the grid happy and humming without it.

    Notes on Sources: *The 6.7 percent figure comes from adding the “Coal from Market Purchases” figures for each utility in the 2010 WA Dept. of Commerce Utility Fuel Mix Report and dividing by the total MWh of electricity consumed in Washington. It excludes Pacific Power, which owns coal plants but reports all of its power as a market purchase under a provision in the state law governing fuel mix reporting. Including Pacific Power would have made Washington’s coal market purchases appear much larger than they are likely to be.

    Outlet photo comes from flickr user grendelkhan via a Creative Commons license.