When President Donald Trump announced that the United States would withdraw from the Paris climate accord, a groundswell began. City and state officials, business leaders, organizations and communities have stepped up to fill the climate leadership void in the wake of Trump’s decision. In the Northwest, people are calling for electric utilities to stop producing energy from coal and to increase use of renewables like wind and solar.
Puget Sound Energy (PSE) in Washington state faces sustained pressure from local elected officials demanding coal-free energy by 2025. Similarly, the Oregon Legislature passed a law requiring coal-free energy by 2030, an action that will require utilities to divest from all coal assets by 2035. And just last week, Al Gore’s Climate Reality Project mobilized 800 volunteers in Seattle for the 2025 Carbon-Free PSE Campaign.
So What Does This Have to Do with Idaho?
The Idaho Panhandle gets electricity from the Washington-based public utility, Avista. And Avista, along with five other utilities like PSE, is part owner of the Colstrip coal-fired power plant in Montana. In 2015, Colstrip was reported by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to be the third largest emitter of greenhouse gases in the county. Avista distributes electricity in eastern Washington and northern Idaho and doesn’t face the same political pressure to end its ownership in Colstrip as its partners to the west. However, there are big implications for Avista if other northwest utilities sell off their interest in Colstrip.
Currently, the maintenance and operation costs are divided among the six owners. As other owners pull out, Avista will take on a much larger percentage of the costs—costs that will ultimately fall on Idaho ratepayers. In May, Talen Energy, the operator of Colstrip, testified in front of the Montana Legislature that it is losing $30 million a year and that its investment in the plant is not sustainable. The two Oregon-based utilities, Portland General Electric and PacifiCorp, are required by law to divest from Colstrip by 2035. As owners pull out of Colstrip, Avista will be on the hook for more of the environmental cleanup costs that are forecast to increase significantly the longer the plant is in operation.
There is a confluence in both demand and supply for a 2025 retirement date of the Colstrip plant. The Rosebud Mine that supplies the coal for the plant only has enough reserves to last through 2024, according to documents filed with the Security and Exchange Commission. The mining company is considering a new 25,000-acre strip mine to supply coal for an additional 10 years. That would require the owners of Colstrip to sign a 10-year contract with the mining company. Tearing up 25,000 more acres of grassland and creating more environmental damage just isn’t worth it for what could be a short-term supply need. What’s more, a long-term investment in a fading resource like coal is a risky financial decision in light of current energy market trends.
The Tide Is Changing
Coal’s poor economics are not unique to Colstrip: closure plans have been made at 256 plants across the country since 2010. In May, ICL reached a deal with Idaho Power and others to retire the North Valmy coal plant in Nevada nearly a decade early beginning in 2019. The closure of coal plants indicates not only public interest in clean energy but also a changing tide in energy prices. A report last year by the World Economic Forum showed that both wind and solar are cheaper than fossil fuels for the first time, with wind power costing half the price of coal. Nationwide, utility companies are taking advantage of more affordable energy.
But Avista is in denial about the dire economics and public disfavor of coal. On June 30, the company released a draft of its integrated resource plan, a document outlining how it plans to supply electricity over the next 20 years. The plan shows that Avista has no intention of divesting from Colstrip in that time. That decision is out of line with what other Colstrip owners are doing and poses significant risk to North Idaho electric customers.
In Idaho, we know that clean energy can create jobs, provide energy independence and secure reliable and affordable energy rates—all while protecting the air, water and climate that make Idaho an amazing place to live. Without national leadership on climate change, we must demand that Avista free Idaho from coal and look out for our state’s interests.[We asked you to tell Avista that you didn’t want the company risking ratepayers’ money in the Colstrip plant. And a number of you did. Stay tuned and we’ll ask you to weigh in with the Public Utilities Commission later this summer.]