The Tale of Two Electrical Outlets

Puget Sound Energy's coal power leaves a big footprint in WA.
This post is part of the research project: The Dirt on Coal
Chris Campbell, flickr

Chris Campbell, flickr

This is the tale of two electrical outlets—one that gets an impressive chunk of its power from clean, climate-friendly sources, and another that channels a significant share of its electricity from polluting coal plants.

Funny thing is, the outlets are just a block away from one another.

Thanks to a law that requires utilities in Washington State to disclose where their power comes from, we know quite a bit about how different electricity providers compare. The state’s numbers have their quirks, but they do provide a consistent way for customers to evaluate their utilities’ climate performance.

Those numbers reveal two surprises.  First, even though many northwesterners assume that all of the region’s electricity comes from clean hydropower, in reality 18 percent of the state’s power last year came from dirty coal plants. And second, nearly half of that polluting coal power came from a single utility: Puget Sound Energy.

For a larger version of this chart, click here.

So let’s get back to those two electrical outlets.

In Lake Forest Park, someone who flips the switch on their coffeepot each morning gets their electricity from Seattle City Light. More than a decade ago, the utility faced a fundamental choice. It owned a stake in the Centralia coal plant, the only coal plant operating within Washington’s borders and the state’s largest single source of greenhouse gas pollution. It was a cheap source of energy, but the other costs were high: climate-damaging pollution, haze that obscures our views of Mt. Rainier, and trouble for asthma sufferers. And the plant’s owners were facing a deadline to invest hundreds of thousands of dollars to install new equipment to reduce air pollution. So City Light and other utilities decided that would be a good time to get out of the business of burning coal.

Seattle City Light sold its stake in Centralia in 2000. The decision later sparked controversy, because the utility wound up paying a lot to replace that power. But in the long run, the decision looks pretty smart, given a recent decision brokered by Washington’s governor to shut down the Centralia coal plant. In 2010, Seattle got only 2 percent of its power from dirty coal sources, according to the latest fuel mix reports, all through purchases on the spot market.

Now let’s consider how a coffeepot is powered one block away in Kenmore, WA, a city served by Puget Sound Energy.

Like Seattle City Light, Puget Sound Energy has a well-deserved national reputation for supporting clean, renewable power sources.  The utility is now the second-largest generator of wind power among privately-held US utilities, and also runs an award-winning Green Power Program that allows customers to pay a voluntary premium for renewable electricity. (Note: Because the utility sells “RECs,” the green attributes from its wind and solar farms, to other utilities and because the green power program isn’t considered part of their base load, they are not able to take credit for that renewable energy in Washington’s fuel mix reports.)

Nevertheless, PSE’s overall electricity portfolio remains heavily reliant on dirty coal. According to the state’s latest fuel mix disclosure report, 36 percent of PSE’s power came from coal in 2010, the bulk of which came from the Colstrip plant in eastern Montana. Colstrip is the second largest coal plant west of the Mississippi River, capable of producing more energy than the Hoover Dam, or Washington’s Centralia coal plant and Oregon’s Boardman coal plant combined. Roughly a third of Colstrip’s emissions—some 6 million tons of carbon dioxide last year alone—can be traced to PSE’s ownership. In fact, according to EPA and state data, PSE’s Colstrip emissions accounted for roughly a quarter of all climate pollution coming from the state’s electric utilities.

The chart below shows how PSE’s coal-fired power—in black and gray—compares with other major utilities in the state.

To see a larger version of this chart, click here.

And here’s a closer look at the details of the power portfolios for the state’s largest utilities:

To see a larger version of this chart, click here.

As the state’s largest utility, with more than a million electric customers from Bellingham to Olympia to Cle Elum, PSE has an outsized impact on the state’s electricity profile. And its heavy reliance on coal has a huge impact on the state’s overall emissions.

But PSE may soon face a decision much like the one that Seattle City Light confronted a decade ago. Complying with pending regulations to better control air toxins, coal ash, and regional haze that affects national parks could cost Colstrip’s owners hundreds of millions of dollars. Choosing the pathway that Seattle City Light took—by divesting itself of its stake in the polluting Colstrip plant—would truly put Puget Sound Energy at the forefront of clean energy leaders in the US.

So when PSE has to decide how invested it wants to be in the future of Colstrip, which utility will show up? The one with the biggest carbon footprint in Washington? Or the clean energy champion?

Stay tuned to find out.

Notes: Utility consumption data in this post comes from Washington State’s Utility Fuel Mix Reports. Aggregate data for the state of Washington in 2010 was supplied by the state Department of Commerce. Emissions data for the Colstrip plant in 2010 comes from the EPA’s Clean Air Markets database, and 2010 emissions data for all Washington comes from aggregate data supplied by the state Department of Commerce.

The consumption from owned coal resources that PSE reported to the state for 2010 (5.9 million MWh) and the utility’s share of the Colstrip generation data in the EPA database (5.7 million Mwh) were within 5 percent of each other, making the two sources relatively comparable. I calculated PSE’s Colstrip emissions by multiplying emissions data in the EPA database by the utility’s ownership stake in each unit (50 percent of units 1 and 2 and 25 percent of units 3 and 4). I compared this with the carbon dioxide emissions from all the electricity consumed in Washington in 2010 to arrive at PSE’s percentages of total electricity sector emissions.

*Washington’s Fuel Mix Disclosure program allows a utility to accept a fuel mix based on a regionwide pool, rather than reporting its actual fuel mix. Pacific Power was the only utility to take advantage of this provision in 2010, which likely makes the utility’s Washington fuel mix look cleaner than it actually is. For instance, the utility reported in Washington that it got 47 percent of its power from coal plants. In Oregon, Pacific Power has reported that it gets 63 percent of its power from coal. If we presume that is a more accurate reflection of the utility’s true fuel mix in 2010, Pacific Power would account for 17 percent of all the coal consumed in Washington and all other utilities combined would account for 12 percent. PSE’s percentage would remain the same, based on the utility fuel mix reports.

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  1. Bryce M. says:

    What they fail to mention is the fact that Washington exports a large percentage of its’ nuclear and hydro power to BC, Oregon, and California because those regions have legislation dictating a certain percentage of power from clean or renewable sources (but don’t specify how they do it), while Washington then imports power from Montana’s mountain-top removal coal projects to backfill. Due to transmission inefficiencies, about a third of that clean power is lost, resulting in greater pollution than if they burned coal in their own regions. I found all this out because a few years ago I got curious by PSE’s curious little “check this box to pay market rates for green power” option. I asked Christine Gregoire about it and she was well aware of this and said she could do nothing because it’s all run by the Bonneville Power Administration. Our Senators and my House rep all said “they’d look into it”. It’s a case of market distortion by well-meaning but poorly designed legislation.

    • Jei says:

      But the power doesn’t actually travel farther because of the sale, right? I always get a little confused about the grid, but electricity isn’t like transporting a truck of potatoes, it’s like owning water rights or something. I think. I mean, we’re just talking about electrons flowing through these power lines, and being controlled at certain places (like substations). It would be nice if the author could respond.

  2. Jon Stahl says:

    Sounds like a great strategic field organizing campaign opportunity, especially considering that PSE’s service area is in the suburban/exurban fringe, where enviros are relatively weak and desperately need to invest in building on-the-ground power.

  3. Doug says:

    You really are naive. You wrote a article in November about the cost of living in Washington. Now lets break down the costs that you reference in your article and how they relate to this misguided article. Health care, housing, food, misc. What do all these have in common? Electrical energy. The cost of all these and many other expenses that we pay as consumers are directly related to the cost of energy. Now what is the second least expensive way to produce electrical energy? Coal. If you spent productive time researching ways to produce cleaner electrical energy at the lowest delivered cost you would find that a mine mouth coal power plant is the most economical. You want numbers to back this up get a power dispatch curve for the north west. Coal is dispatched right after hydro power. It is articles like this that drive political policy and cause all taxpayers to bare the cost of misguided public policy that in the end just raises the cost to the consumer.

    • Bryan says:

      Thank you Doug!!! Misguided would be an understatement! This has been my arguement for months on this blog. The only thing I’m going to say is when both the Boardman plant and Centralia coal plants are closed, watch what happens to the electric bills…

    • Jei says:

      Electricity in Seattle is half the average price of electricity in this country. If anything, we could use an increase in price to encourage more efficiency.

      • Janie says:

        That’s exactly right, Jennifer, but you still don’t get it! Our darling govt has imposed regulations on the coal industry that will obviously trickle down to customers. BO stated that he would bankrupt coal companies. This is one way to do it. Send federal inspectors in with the right and the obligation to fine these companies to death. All those regulations and fees will be at the consumers expense, just like in any other business. The bottom line is that coal is cleaner than ever. If he would have funded the clean coal effort with the billions of dollars of taxpayer money that he WASTED funding solar power companies that are now bankrupt, this dialogue would not be happening. This stubborn and very foolish administration does not think beyond the “idea”…and you obviously have not done all of your research or you would realize more of these facts.

  4. Jennifer Langston says:

    To answer some of the questions on this thread, yes, it’s true that the physical electricity produced at Colstrip may not travel huge distances to an electrical outlet that’s being served by a particular utility, but the fact that the utility is paying for that power (regardless of its location) keeps that plant running.

    And as for the cost of coal power , one of the reasons that utilities such as Portland General Electric and Seattle City Light have made the decision to stop burning coal is that the cost of investments to meet basic pollution standards for coal plants means that they’re no longer cheap.

    • Lee James says:

      “Coal plants are no longer cheap,” but they are still cheaper than if all coal plant pollutants are included in the cost of doing business. Today, some of the pollutant cost for coal-generated electric power is accounted for, to avoid acid rain, for example. We need to enact a carbon fee or tax that also puts a price on CO2. True-costing coal would quickly and cost-effectively take us away from it.

  5. Mike S says:

    Dear Ms. Langston, Thank you for the article on the WA electric utility industry. PSE’s integrated resource plan calls for increasing its coal-fired resources by increasing its procurement from the Centralia Plant for the 10 yr remaining life (previously, a term contract was prohibited). PSE’s plan does not expect to buy any biomass-based renewable power from WA’s pulp and paper industry saying it’s too expensive. It ranks its wind generation at higher cost too, although it has already committed the rate payer to pick up the tab, when in hind sight, the Utility Commission ought to reject the deal as self-serving for the shareholders. PSE says it’s met its renewable requirement and does not want to increase (unless its from its own wind farm). Unfortunately, the Utility Commission doesn’t seem to mind that PSE self-deals to the detriment of the state’s pulp and paper industry, and further, now says the rate payers out to pay for gas-fired peaking units to back up the intermittent wind resource the rate payers are liable for. It may be that despite the lowest wholesale market electricity rates in 20+ years, PSE’s rates will go up and its coal share too. So I’d suggest looking into why the WA Utility Commission is letting this go on. Mainly, the Commission doesn’t intercede before PSE implements its plan, and is then handed a fait accompli, which it’s loath to upset. Thanks again.

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