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Idaho’s Unique Space in the War on Coal

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Jim Bridger coal fired power plant, Sweetwater County, Rock Springs Wyoming and pond. It comprises four units, totaling 2110 megawatts (MW) of capacity. Completed in 1974, these generators use coal from the Bridger Coal and Black Butte mines.

Coal Country lies along Idaho’s eastern border

Who’d have thought even a year ago that Idaho would fill a unique space that truly matters in the nation’s wrenching argument with itself over the use of coal to produce electricity? Yet here we are:

  • Idaho has one foot planted in Coal Country, to the east, in places like Montana, Wyoming, and Utah, where coal remains king and not to be trifled with. This is Idaho’s Energy Past.
  • Idaho suddenly has the other foot in a much less familiar place to the west, in places like Oregon and Washington, where coal is reviled as little more than just another four-letter word. This is Idaho’s Energy Future.

Idaho leaders have a history of ducking big energy policy issues like the so-called federal government “war on coal.” After all, Idaho’s formative years were rooted in the economics of abundant natural resources that could be sustainably unearthed, hewn, or fished. It’s understandable that for generations, Idaho politics were dominated by a political and cultural mindset that said:

  • We like cheap power, and if that means coal, then the more the better.
  • We loathe federal intrusion, including Uncle Sam’s getting into our electricity business, with the exception of a federal hydropower dam here and there.
  • We’re the first to admit climate change is real and even have names for it – winter, spring, summer and fall.

Fast-forward to today and our new energy reality:

Coal as a natural resource industry is actively dying in the Intermountain West. Two of the nation’s largest coal companies, Arch Coal and Alpha Natural Resources, filed for bankruptcy in Wyoming. Peabody Energy, another of the nation’s largest coal miners, may have joined them by the time you read this. The Billings Gazette reported on April 4 that in the prior week, more than 460 jobs – 15 percent of the jobs at the nation’s two largest coal mines – were lost on one morning at the Black Thunder and North Antelope Rochelle mines. Social media was the primary way coal workers learned whether they had a job to come to that morning.

As an example of how desperate coal states are to keep their industry alive, a frantic Utah Legislature last month threw a Hail Mary pass – even by Utah standards – to try to prop up its moribund coal industry with a $53 million loan package for an Oakland, California, coal export facility that would send Utah coal to Asia. As Idaho’s friends in Utah, Wyoming, and Montana are learning, fossil fuel energy, which is directly tied to climate change, is an effective repellant for outside capital investments from Wall Street or anywhere else.

On the other side of the nation, in Appalachia, the cratering coal industry is dragging huge swaths of the region deeper into their already debilitating economic recession.

Coal companies large and small are doing all they can to stay afloat if for no other reason than, if they go out of business, they face massive spending obligations to “reclaim” or restore their mine sites – something few can afford even though they’re legally obligated to clean up their sloppy environmental legacy. With the prospect of abandoned mines comes long-term environmental disaster. State and federal taxpayers – including, yes, those in Idaho – will bear the cleanup costs from those shuttered mines.

Withering coal communities in the interior West are on life support as they try to transition to new ways of life, so let’s be honest about what these beleaguered coal towns are confronting. We have all benefitted from those bad old days of coal power made possible by workers and their families in towns like Colstrip, Montana, and we are all obliged to ensure they survive the inevitable transition away from coal.

Idaho is unique because, just as coal crumbles to our east, its obituary has already been written to our west, notably in Oregon and Washington, where the region’s only two coal plants face early retirement and Idaho utilities like Idaho Power and Rocky Mountain Power that used them are planning for low-coal or coal-free futures. As coal careens toward irrelevancy in the West, Idaho utility customers, sympathetic as they might be to the plight of their eastern neighbors, are no longer interested in paying a fossil fuel premium when far more affordable and available options such as fast-growing solar power are on the rise.

Idaho Power faced a huge customer backlash in 2013 when it sought state regulatory approval to install expensive pollution control measures on two of the four Wyoming coal units it co-owns with PacifiCorp. The other two coal units are soon up for similar upgrades, and Idaho Power would face a wall of public opposition and a massive public relations headache if it tries to make those upgrades on the other two coal plants and stick its customers with the bill for decades.

State and federal government regulations are rendering coal-fired electricity uneconomic and in some cases illegal. Other electricity resources like wind and solar have become increasingly affordable, and attractive to utilities. Natural gas prices, perhaps coal’s largest threat, have been so low for so long that coal’s ability to compete is nearly exhausted. Coal, more than any other electricity fuel source, is becoming the third-rail of Wall Street capital as investors flee and the nation’s largest banks, including the likes of Bank of America and Citigroup, withdraw investments from anything having to do with coal. Wall Street is ending the flow of money to anything connected to causing climate change. It has lost its patience with the coal industry, and it’s quickly losing whatever patience it still had with other industrial sectors like the utility industry that rely on coal.

It’s no wonder the U.S. Energy Information Administration projects that in 2016, natural gas will surpass coal as the nation’s leading electricity resource for the first time on an annual basis.

Into this upside-down energy environment, where dirty and cheap is no longer the choice of energy champions, comes Idaho, which has four electric utilities with a dog in the coal fight:

  • Bonneville Power Administration, the huge federal electricity wholesaler that provides a tiny bit of nuclear energy but mostly hydropower to dozens of local government-owned and cooperative utilities in the four northwestern states. BPA provides about one-third of the Northwest’s electricity, but just 5 percent of BPA’s load is in Idaho.
  • Idaho Power, which burns coal for 40 percent or so of its electricity, but which faces a scheduled early shutdown of one coal plant in Oregon, the expected early shutdown of another coal plant in Nevada, and threats to efforts to prolong the lives of other coal units in Wyoming.
  • Avista Utilities, the least coal-reliant of the bunch but one that’s seeing a death warrant being written on the hugely polluting Colstrip Coal Plant in Montana, of which Avista has a small ownership stake.
  • And PacifiCorp, known in Idaho as Rocky Mountain Power, which is one of the West’s biggest coal plant operators but one also facing swift and deep state-ordered coal plant reductions by Oregon.

So to summarize, Idaho’s cultural sympathies may remain with our Friends of Energy Past to the east, where coal’s epitaph is now being written, but its future is undeniably with our Friends of Energy Future to the west, where coal is anathema and where utilities associated with coal face a heavy price if they continue that dalliance. It’s not as simple as the stereotypical “old west-new west” paradigm, but it’s close.

Idaho has no state energy policy dealing with coal. The closest thing to it is the state’s 2012 Idaho Energy Plan, but it has been rendered largely obsolete by its own age and technology advances over the past four years. The just-concluded Idaho Legislature did not direct the state Office of Energy Resources to update the Idaho Energy Plan as the Snake River Alliance had suggested it do, so Idaho’s energy roadmap still talks wistfully about “clean coal technologies” that have yet to materialize.

For Idaho, with that one energy foot planted firmly in the Dirty Energy Past of the Intermountain West coal states and the other energy foot planted firmly in the Clean Energy Future this is less about choices because choices far outside the control of Idaho or its utilities are determining our energy future.

What this is about is you having a say in your energy future and that of our state. Idaho utilities are about to embark on their every-other-year “integrated resource plan” processes that they’ll use to show where their energy will come from in future years.

While we should always be mindful of the tough transitions already or soon to be under way in our coal-dependent neighbor communities, we must still be unequivocal in demanding that our utilities sever once and for all their allegiance to dirty energy and replace that energy with the abundant clean renewable energy and energy efficiency already available.

People talk about the “war on coal” as if it’s a bad thing, when it’s instead one of those rare opportunities for Idahoans to choose our energy destiny. There is no economic opportunity or benefit in embracing obsolete coal-fired power generation, because the jobs associated with coal and the power plants themselves have no future.

Coal will not disappear as a major domestic U.S. electricity fuel overnight, but the die is cast, and the future of clean energy couldn’t be more promising. Towns across Idaho are already cashing in on clean energy investments being made by Idaho’s wind and solar entrepreneurs, and the future for Idaho’s new energy economy and the jobs it holds is already here.

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