Yesterday I had the distinct pleasure of standing in the rain for about an hour on a busy street corner at rush hour. That doesn’t sound fun? Actually it was, because I was with some other caring citizens trying to raise awareness about moving our local energy provider, Puget Sound Energy, out of the business of buying coal as part of their energy portfolio.
PSE does a lot of good stuff. They are a partner in the RePower efforts going on around Puget Sound including my county that work with homeowners to upgrade their energy systems so they are more efficient, saving money and conserving energy along the way. They are trying to expand their alternative energy portfolio, and according to their website, they are currently the second-largest utility generator of wind power in the U.S. They are also offering a Green Power program to consumers where for an additional $4 to $12 a month, homeowners can buy into increased purchasing of clean energy including wind and solar power. Puget Sound Energy also gets quite a lot of its power from hydro. Hydro is not without substantive impacts- it has serious impacts on salmon and the ecology of the rivers that are dammed to provide the energy, to be sure- but it is far more benign in terms of emissions than fossil-fuel based energies.
But about 1/3 of PSE’s energy portfolio comes from coal, primarily from the Colstrip Generating Station in eastern Montana. PSE says Colstrip is actually among the cleaner of the coal-burning plants in the US due to substantive recent upgrades, though the Sierra Club, who recently filed suit against PSE and the other owners of the Colstrip Plant alleging that the plant violates Clean Air Act Standards, seems to disagree. Regardless, its enormous size –it is the second-largest coal-fired project west of the Mississippi, burning 10 millions tons of fuel per year and generating more than 2000 megawatts of electricity that serves Montana, Oregon and Washington- makes it unavoidably a massive carbon emitter and source of local pollution.
A local web paper did a nice job summarizing the arguments of why Beyond Coal wants PSE to move beyond coal. Coal is cheaper to the utility and the consumer because many of the true costs of coal in terms of human health and carbon emissions are externalized. Here, again, is a place where federal regulation could play an important role in actually insisting that some of those real costs to our society get accounted for in pricing energy.
As PSE has stated, coal forms a particularly cheap component of their energy portfolio, and allows them to provide a mix of energies that maintain a more affordable price to consumers. Energy affordability is certainly nothing to make light of, when many people in this country have to make choices such as paying their energy bill or buying groceries. But other people- including those living and working in and near coal plants that get the highest dose of the heavy particulates, and all of us that are paying the cost of the carbon emissions- ARE paying for that “cheap energy”- its just harder to see the costs when they don’t come in the form of your energy bill. So divesting PSE from coal is most certainly a multi-pronged strategy: its supporting the alternative energies so that PSE can have increasingly cheaper and more available alternatives to coal; its asking those who can afford it to purchase green power; and its also recognizing that there are external costs that need to be accounted for and that may help tip the balance in favor of less carbon-intensive ways to power our region. But to get towards any of these goals, we have to make folks aware of the issue, hence my standing in the rain for an hour as one little drop in the ocean of carbon awareness that is needed.