blue sky flickr mikaA deal to wean Washington off coal power is a hair’s breadth away from becoming law.

Both houses of the Legislature have approved a bill to close the state’s largest single source of greenhouse gas, mercury, and nitrogen oxide pollution over the next decade and a half. And with the addition of the governor’s signature later this week, Washington will be on track to become the second state in the country (behind Oregon) to retire all its coal plants.

Here are the details:

  • TransAlta will stop producing half of the coal power at its Centralia plant in 2020, and the other half in 2025.
  • In the meantime, the company can sell coal power to utilities through long-term contracts (which would otherwise be prohibited for such a dirty energy source).
  • TransAlta will install pollution controls by 2013 to reduce haze that causes smog and obscures iconic vistas like Mount Rainier.
  • TransAlta will provide $30 million in direct economic development and energy efficiency jobs to the community and another $25 million to develop clean energy technology in the state.

It’s not a perfect agreement, but the fact that one exists at all is exciting. It shows what can happen when different parties – TransAlta, the environmental community, labor groups representing plant workers, faith leaders, economic development experts, state regulators, and elected officials with divergent ideologies – look for genuine points of mutual interest.

It may seem relentless to ask this question right after so many people have invested huge amounts of energy to bring the deal to the finish line.

But here it is: What’s next?

  • Here’s a point from an earlier post about closing Portland General Electric’s Boardman plant in Oregon. When it comes to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, how you end up replacing the coal power is even more important than when the plant shuts down.

    Building a new natural gas plant (as this story from The Chronicle in Centralia says TransAlta intends to do) can still release half the greenhouse gas emissions as running an old coal plant. And a provision of the deal would actually exempt TransAlta’s replacement power from rules that normally require new fossil fuel plants in Washington state to offset carbon dioxide emissions through third party programs, buying carbon credits or investing in mitigation projects.

    So with more than a decade to prepare for a transition off coal, couldn’t we find a cleaner way to replace that coal power?

    Nancy Hirsh, policy director for the NW Energy Coalition, thinks so:

    We have an abundance of untapped energy efficiency and renewable energy resources available to us. Saving energy and producing clean renewable energy will create far more jobs than simply switching to another fossil fuel.

    At the moment, I’m all for celebrating the hard work that everyone put into this agreement. It removes a lot of uncertainty for Centralia workers, state regulators and anyone who cares about the climate, clean air and health. But as we cheer Washington state’s coal-free future, let’s reserve some energy to keep talking about what that future ought to look like.

    Update: Check out this Platts report on Columbia Grid’s study of how different scenarios for replacing TransAlta’s coal power will affect the electric grid. Upgrades and reinforcements may be necessary (to varying degrees based on where the replacement power comes from) but the good news is that it appears the effects of closing the plant can be mitigated.

    Blue sky photo courtesy of flickr user *- mika -* via a Creative Commons license.