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Friday, February 12, 2010

Major Analysis Shows Road to a Coal-Free Northwest

This is a cross-post from It's Getting Hot in Here

The coal industry in the Pacific Northwest received a heavy blow yesterday with the release of the Northwest Power and Conservation Council's (NWPCC's) Sixth Power Plan, describing how the region encompassing Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and Montana can cost-effectively shut down at least half its coal plants (including coal plants outside the region that supply these states with electricity) by the year 2020. The NWPCC failed to include this move to phase out coal in its official recommendation, for such is the power of the coal lobby. Yet the fact that the Council did include the analysis in its Sixth Plan is a testament to the hard work of climate activists in the lead-up to the Plan's release.

During the fall of 2009, the NWPCC held hearings on its Sixth Plan throughout the Northwest. Back then, it was unclear whether the final plan would analyze how our region could begin moving away from coal at all. Yet by the end of the year, the Sierra Club and allied organizations had turned out hundreds of people to hearings in Oregon, Washington, and Montana, to urge the Council to use its own studies to show that a coal-free Northwest is possible. I myself attended hearings in the Oregon cities of Portland and Eugene, where I heard NWPCC members remark repeatedly on how impressed they were with public involvement in this process, and with the turnout of young people to both hearings.

Thanks in large part to grassroots activism, the final Sixth Power Plan shows how the Northwest can phase out at least half of its coal plants, meet the great majority of its new energy needs through increased efficiency, and feasibly reduce greenhouse emissions with a carbon price of $47 per ton of carbon dioxide emitted. The Plan clearly shows that there is absolutely no need to build a new coal plant anywhere in the four-state region of the Northwest.

Is the Sixth Power Plan the final word in the struggle to end the Northwest's reliance on dirty coal? Of course not. For one thing, phasing out half of our region's coal plants only gets us halfway to where we need to be. For another, utilities are not bound to act on the fact that the road toward a lower-carbon future is now illuminated. Ultimately, the people who must be persuaded that public opinion will not tolerate a prolonged dependence on coal are the decision-makers in major utilities, and the government agencies with direct authority to regulate pollution. It's time to build on the groundswell of activism that scored this victory in the Sixth Power Plan, and use it to keep up the pressure to eliminate coal use in the Northwest altogether.

We must begin by closing Oregon's Boardman Coal Plan well before the 2020 shutdown date proposed by Portland General Electric. We must close TransAlta's coal plant in Centralia, Washington, Montana's massive Colstrip Plant, and many others. The Northwest needs to invest heavily in renewable energy and efficiency projects to replace the electricity now derived from coal, while at the same time providing thousands of green-collar jobs. The road ahead will be marked by some setbacks, but many victories as well.

The release of the Sixth Power Plan is one of these victories. It's a victory because a third-party government body has now clearly shown that a transition away from coal is possible. It's a victory because it has shown climate activists in the Northwest the power we can have when we get organized. Now let's take this victory and run with it.

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