Regulators Discuss Future Of Coal In The West

Jun 6, 2014

The Obama administration’s new rules to cut CO2 emissions sparked some interesting conversation in Seattle this week. At a conference held downtown, leaders in the energy sector gathered to talk about the future of coal in the West. Ashley Ahearn reports for EarthFix.

This image of the coal-fired plant in Colstrip, Mont., was made in the 1980s by Montana native David T. Hanson. It was part of an exhibit at Modern Museum of Art in New York.
Credit David T. Hanson / EarthFix

The Western Conference of Public Service Commissioners. Sounds like a blast, right? Ok, how about if I told you that the people at this conference decide where our power comes from… and they regulate it.

A little bit cooler, right?

Now that the feds are requiring that states cut CO2 emissions from power plants by 30 percent over the next 16 years, regulators are turning their attention to coal. Does it have a future?

Kavulla: “The answer is a resounding yes, the question is how much?”

That’s Travis Kavulla. He’s with the Montana Public Service Commission. He’s one of the guys calling the shots on what kind of power his state produces, and what it will cost consumers. Montana mines and burns a lot of coal.

So as you might imagine, Kavulla’s not too pleased with the federal Environmental Protection Agency right now.

Kavulla: “The bottom line is that the EPA seems set on establishing state by state goals, based on particular building blocks, a particularly infantilizing term, I think.”

The building blocks include boosting energy efficiency, getting more renewable energy on the grid… and, using less coal.

Puget Sound Energy – based in Bellevue - gets more than 15 percent of its power from Montana coal. PSE is under mounting pressure from voters and the state government to kick its coal habit.

Kimberly Harris is the president and CEO of PSE. During the panel discussion she said the new EPA rules just add to that pressure. But…

Harris: “You cannot just shut down coal units and expect for the grid to continue to operate. And we have an obligation to serve.”

Harris says that transitioning off of coal is possible, but it will take time – and states will have to work together.

Washington’s in good shape to meet the EPA requirements pretty much just by phasing out our last coal plant in Centralia. But Montana is going to need help lowering its CO2 emissions and getting more renewables online.

The question is who will pay for it?

Weinstein: "From an investor’s point of view, all of this looks like a giant investment opportunity."

Mike Weinstein is an investment analyst with UBS Securities in New York.

Investors will be looking to throw money at new technology to cut CO2 emissions at the smokestack – or sequester those emissions underground.

Some other winners? Weinstein said. Renewable energy, natural gas and maybe nuclear power,

He also stressed the role of energy efficiency in helping utilities meet the EPA requirements, and keep costs down.

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