The Dave Johnson coal-fired power plant is silhouetted against the morning sun in Glenrock, Wyoming in July 2018. The Trump administration announced June 19, that it has rolled back a landmark Obama-era effort targeting coal-fired power plants and their climate-damaging pollution. (J. David Ake / Associated Press file photo)

The Dave Johnson coal-fired power plant is silhouetted against the morning sun in Glenrock, Wyoming in July 2018. The Trump administration announced June 19, that it has rolled back a landmark Obama-era effort targeting coal-fired power plants and their climate-damaging pollution. (J. David Ake / Associated Press file photo)

Editorial: Sun setting on attempts to fan coal’s embers

Enthusiasm for Snohomish PUD’s solar project offers hope for a 100 percent clean power future.

By The Herald Editorial Board

For those convinced that only significant reductions in carbon and other green-house gas emissions can limit the damage from climate change, last week’s announcement by the Trump administration — bolstering coal-fired power plants — is disheartening.

Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency announced a permanent replacement of his predecessor’s Clean Power Plan, which was sidelined by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2016; it dismantles the Obama era carbon-reduction requirements for power generation and its move away from coal and, instead, allows states to decide how much — if at all — to require a rollback of emissions and reduces the federal government’s authority in setting standards.

States’ attorney generals, including those in Washington, California, Oregon and elsewhere, have announced their intentions to file lawsuits to block the administrations’ “Affordable Clean Energy” rule, but some have warned that in the hands of a U.S. Supreme Court conservative majority, such a challenge could instead result in a ruling that limits future presidents’ abilities to enact measures to confront climate change.

Where to find some sunshine?

What about this? It took Snohomish County Public Utility District customers less than a month to buy up 7,290 “shares” in the utility’s Community Solar program, a new 2-acre solar panel array at the Arlington-Marysville Manufacturing Industrial Center, as reported last week by The Herald’s Julia-Grace Sanders.

For $120 a share, PUD ratepayers were invited to buy into the solar array, allowing them to participate directly in a solar-energy project without having to install their own roof-top photovoltaic system. Participants were allowed to purchase as many as 130 units, and more than a dozen invested in the maximum.

Over the next 20 years, participants will see credits on their bills that will total $16.50 a year. At that rate, each ratepayer’s investment will have paid for itself in less than eight years. The credits for the following 12 years are their return on investment.

Although the PUD doesn’t now plan on adding on to the program — that could depend on whether additional grant funding for such projects will be made available — it is taking names for a wait list if some in the program drop out, with 50 rate-payers already in line.

Similarly, a renewable energy system program managed by Washington State University, which offered incentives of up to 50 percent of the installation of rooftop solar-power systems, recently announced that it has reached the $110 million funding cap, set by the state Legislature. It met that limit in less than two years, when the program had been intended to run for four.

Those successes should encourage the Legislature to make similar investments soon.

Against the backdrop of global carbon emissions, it’s hard to see much accomplishment in the PUD’s Community Solar and WSU’s rooftop solar program, but it’s there, and it’s an indication of the keen interest and support for the switch to renewable sources of electricity.

It’s that public demand that led the state Legislature this year to adopt a mandate for the state’s utilities to provide 100 percent of their electricity from renewable, non-carbon-emitting sources by 2045. Even earlier goals are part of that legislation; by 2025, utilities can no longer provide electricity generated by coal-fired plants.

Although Snohomish PUD is already at the 98 percent mark for renewable electricity, statewide, electric utilities still rely on coal-fired plants for about 13 percent of their power, with another 11 percent from natural gas.

Not including hydropower, renewable sources such as solar and wind have a long road ahead to fully replace fossil fuels for energy and transportation needs. Solar doesn’t total even 2 percent of the nation’s energy portfolio; wind turbines provide about 6 percent.

But the costs pf solar and wind generation have dropped significantly; 34 percent for solar in the last five years. In Washington state, which ranks only 30th in the amount of solar energy installed in about 18,000 homes, more than 65 megawatts of the state’s total of 186 megawatts were installed in 2018 alone, with another 280 megawatts expected to be brought online over the next five years, according to figures from the Solar Energy Industries Association.

That growth stands in contrast to a dwindling future for coal, with or without the assistance of the Trump administration.

Earlier this month, Puget Sound Energy, the state’s largest utility announced that one of its coal-fired plants, which supplies some of its electricity and which it co-owns, was shutting down two of its older units because of financial challenges. The energy market has become a less economically friendly place for coal.

“The dropping price of clean energy and the escalating costs of aging coal plants has led us to a point where burning coal is one of the most expensive possible ways for a utility to produce electricity,” said Doug Howell, the Sierra Club’s senior spokesperson for its Beyond Coal campaign in a recent release about the closure.

The four-unit Colstrip Generating Station in Colstrip, Montana, will extinguish the two units by the end of the year, two and a half years earlier than planned. No shutdown date has been announced for Colstrip’s two other units, but — as the state law now requires — PSE will have to pull out of that plant or shut down the units by 2025 at the latest.

The good news, says Caleb Heeringa, deputy press secretary with the Sierra Club, is that the closure of the first two units will bring a reduction in annual carbon emissions of 5 million tons, the equivalent of 1 million cars on the road, from the two units’ full capacity.

The closures leave the potential of hardship for the town of Colstrip, but only if coal is seen as its only hope. The electrical grid infrastructure and some of the workforce that will remain could instead be employed in clean-energy production, in particular wind, which is most plentiful in winter when Puget Sound Energy and other utilities need the power most.

Trump can fan coal’s embers only so long. The transition to renewable energy is inevitable. But it needs to happen more quickly.

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