rainier flickr orkybashUnder a bill introduced today, Washington State would stop burning dirty coal for electricity within its borders. But aside from healthier air and clearer views of Mt Rainier, would the state’s electricity customers notice any difference?

Probably not.

Washington’s only coal-fired power plant—located n Centralia and owned by the Canadian TransAlta Corp.—is the state’s largest single source of greenhouse gas emissions. It also releases toxic pollutants like mercury and contributes to haze that obscures vistas and national parks around the state.

HB1825, introduced by Rep. Marko Liias, would effectively require the plant to stop burning coal as early as 2015 (ten years earlier than a goal set by Gov. Christine Gregoire). The bill would apply the state’s greenhouse gas emissions performance standard—which limits the amount of climate pollution new power plants can release—to the existing Centralia plant. Because dirty coal emissions would grossly exceed that threshold, TransAlta would have to stop burning it at that point (though the company’s natural gas plant there could keep running.)

Centralia’s coal burners produce roughly 1100 MW of electricity each year—a sizeable chunk of the power generated in the state. But here’s why Washington’s electricity customers shouldn’t be affected by the change.

Utilities such as Seattle City Light, Clark Public Utilities, Puget Sound Energy and Avista generally use their own power plants to meet their customers’ needs. TransAlta is not a utility. It’s an energy company with no local customers or loads to serve. It sells electricity to anyone still willing to buy dirty coal power, and it’s believed that most of its power is bought and used in other states. And studies are underway to identify what investments may be needed to maintain grid stability once the coal plant goes offline.

But the plant is important to the economy of Lewis County. So HB1825 devotes significant attention—and dollars—to what happens in the community after TransAlta stops burning coal there.

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  • The legislation would require TransAlta to pay into a trust a “decommissioning fee” of $1 per megawatt hour of coal-fired energy produced, which is expected to generate about $9 million a year. That money would go towards cleaning up the site (creating jobs in the process) and making it usable for other business ventures. An advisory board—appointed by the governor and representing plant workers, economic development groups and other local interests—would oversee the cleanup plan and work. Finally, the legislation would steer public facility and economic development funds to competitive projects in Lewis County.

    No power plant runs forever—and TransAlta seems genuinely interested in getting out of the coal-burning business in Washington. So it only makes sense to prepare for that transition, with a higher degree of certainty, a concrete plan and funding to ensure the community will be ready for the industries of the future, not the past.

    Update: HB 1825 will be the subject of a House Environment Committee hearing at 1:30 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 15.

    Mount Rainier photo courtesy of flickr user orkybash via a Creative Commons license.