Here in the Northwest, coal feels like someone else’s problem. Maybe the Appalachian miner, a Wyoming rancher or someone watching their asthmatic kid gasp for clean air among the Midwest’s dirty coal-fired power plants.

coal lumpBy comparison, flipping a light switch here makes us feel almost virtuous. After all, we know much of the electricity that powers our homes comes from hydropower, which has negligible climate impacts compared to burning fossil fuels. (We’ll leave impacts on fish aside for now.) We’ve all heard how these heroic dams put the region back to work during the Depression, electrified rural farms and supplied cheap power to build the airplanes that won a war. Our cultural identity is so linked to hydropower that the hum of our appliances almost channels “Roll On, Columbia.”

But the numbers tell a different story.

Here’s one: 8.3 million tons. That’s the amount of coal consumed in 2007 by the two coal-fired power plants currently operating in Washington and northeastern Oregon. That much coal would fill about 75,000 typical railroad cars. If you linked them all in a train, it would stretch for 750 miles, roughly the driving distance from Olympia, Washington to San Francisco.

Here’s another: The annual tailpipe emissions from 3 million cars. That’s about how much climate-warming carbon dioxide drifted from the stacks of the states’ two coal-fired plants in 2007.

Centralia coal plantThese numbers are surprising, largely because the less romanticized chapters of Northwest energy history are easy to forget. Here’s the short version: Once power managers began to realize the dams wouldn’t supply enough electricity forever, they set to work building other energy-generating plants in the 1970s. That included a set of twin coal-fired units in Centralia, Washington, and eventually another coal plant in Boardman, Oregon. Their legacy is also difficult to see: emissions of mercury that damages young brains, smog-causing chemicals that obscure treasured landscapes and more planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions than any other single source in their respective states.

And figuring out just how much the region relies upon coal plants like these requires some sleuthing.

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  • If you take all the electricity generated within the state of Washington in 2007—including dams, natural gas plants, nuclear sites, wind turbines, solar panels and other sources—the coal plant now owned by the TransAlta Corp. in Centralia accounted for about 8 percent of the power flowing into the grid statewide. The same was true for Oregon’s Boardman plant, whose majority owner is Portland General Electric.

    Oregon electricity generationWashington generation

    But those charts don’t really capture our  true reliance on coal—or our responsibility for the pollution it causes—since we may be using electricity generated in another state. Puget Sound Energy, for instance, owns one-third of the output from Montana’s Colstrip Generating Station, one of the largest coal plants west of the Mississippi. The parent company of Pacific Power, serving communities in Washington and Oregon, operates multiple coal plants in the Rocky Mountains. Estimates that attempt to factor in how power moves around the region conclude that a whopping 38 percent of the electricity consumed in Oregon in 2007 came from burning coal. In Washington, the number was 17 percent.

    Oregon electricity consumption

    Washington electricity consumption

    And as the chart below shows, coal is such a dirty source of energy that its share of climate-warming pollution far outstrips its share of electricity generation in the Washington-Oregon-Idaho-Montana region. (This chart originally appeared in the NW Energy Coalition’s Bright Future report authored by Steve Weiss.)

    NWEC chart

    In fact, the Centralia coal plant releases more carbon dioxide pollution than any other single source in the state of Washington. In 2007, more than 10 million tons of those climate-warming gases drifted out of the stacks. That means nearly 11 percent of all the state’s carbon dioxide emissions came from one place.

    In Oregon, Boardman is also the single biggest industrial source of carbon dioxide pollution, having released about 4.8 million tons in 2007. (We’ll deal with coal’s mercury and smog-causing emissions in another post.) So as the states are trying to figure out how to reach greenhouse gas reduction targets—whether through getting cars off the road or switching homeowners to cleaner fuels or reducing emissions from cement plants—transitioning these coal-fired plants within their borders to cleaner options represents an enormous opportunity.

    To help the region make better energy choices, consumers and policymakers should be armed with basic facts. In this day and age, utilities don’t like to advertise that they still rely on coal. And after power flows into the sea of electrons that make up our regional grid—where they are mingled, marketed, sold, wheeled and traded—it can be hard to discern where it came from. But thanks to fuel disclosure laws passed in Washington and Oregon, most consumers today have a reasonably good idea of where their electricity comes from, if they read the fine print on their bills.

    Washington’s handy online reports make it easy to find out how much of a utility’s power comes from hydro, coal, gas, biomass, wind or other renewables. They also reveal that this “fuel mix” (and the assoc
    iated greenhouse gas emissions) varies significantly by utility. Someone receiving power from Avista in Spokane last year, for instance, got a mix that was 25 percent coal. In rural Pend Oreille County one county to the north, which owns its own hydroelectric projects, the mix was only 1 percent coal. (Oregon’s law only requires its two large investor-owned utilities—Pacific Power and Portland General Electric—to report their energy sources and purchases, but that represents a good chunk of the electricity sold in the state.)

    This accounting exercise has its limitations, but it does an admirable job of telling someone who flips a light switch where that energy came from and how clean it is. Unfortunately, at least in Washington right now, there’s no money for new fuel mix reports to shed light on our energy sources. To help close the budget shortfall earlier this year, Legislators cut the funding for that process—which involves combing through utility reports and performing some impressively illuminating calculations. A utility’s fuel mix may not vary dramatically from one year to the next, but let’s hope that funding is restored quickly and the public won’t be left in the dark indefinitely. Otherwise it’ll be even harder to tell how big that lump of coal in your outlet really is.



    Notes on sources: Coal consumption calculation comes from the Energy Information Administration (EIA-906/920/923 and EIA-860), the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, and specs for Freight Car America’s coal cars.

    The car pollution comparison uses Centralia and Boardman 2007 emissions data from the EPA’s Clean Air Markets Data and Maps. Comparative annual car emissions assume a car drives 10,000 miles a year, gets 20 mpg, and that there are 20 pounds of CO2 per gallon of gas.

    WA and OR electricity generation data comes from the EIA 2007 state summary statistics. WA electricity consumption data comes from the 2007 Washington State Electric Utility Fuel Mix report. OR electricity consumption data comes from a provisional analysis by the Oregon Department of Energy.

    Plant-level CO2 emissions also come from the Clean Air Markets Data and Maps. Centralia’s emissions do not appear to distinguish between its 2 coal-fired units and several smaller natural-gas fired units at the same site.

    Thanks also to Kip Pheil at the Oregon Department of Energy and Stacey Waterman-Hoey and Michael Bradley at Washington State University’s Energy Program for shedding light on the fuel mix disclosure process.

    The lump of coal and Centralia plant images come from flickr users ittybittiesforyou and theslowlane via the Creative Commons License.