Coal Power in Oregon

Coal. The United States is the Saudi Arabia of coal. We’ve got more coal than just about anybody. Today, more than 90 percent of the coal used in America goes to make electricity, according to an NPR documentary on coal. Half the electricity generated in the United States comes from coal. Clean coal advocates call it “America’s new green energy.”

But coal is the largest contributor to the human-made increase of CO2 in the atmosphere, causing climate change. It interferes with groundwater and water table levels. It causes acid rain and has a host of other issues.

Coal Usage in the U.S.


In the United States, electricity generation accounts for nearly 40 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, the largest of any source.


Transportation will slowly electrify over the coming decades, while coal’s share of electric power generation will wane worldwide.

Between 2007 and 2012, coal’s contribution to the U.S. electricity supply went from 50 percent to 37 percent.

New coal power only made up 10 percent of the total newly added electricity generation in 2013. At the same time, new natural gas made up almost half of the new electricity capacity, solar made up about a third of new electricity, and wind delivered about 7 percent of new electricity, according to a new report from the Solar Energy Industries Association and GTM Research. Sending coal to developing countries like China and India is the coal industry’s solution.

Global CO2 Emissions

In the Northwest, we’re lucky to not be dependent on coal. But it’s cheap and plentiful. Coal is not going away. But the cost of coal-powered power plants in the United State is going up. New emissions standards are raising the price of coal-power while new gas fields in North Dakota and elsewhere lowering the cost of Natural Gas, a much “cleaner” fuel to fire power plants.

The big coal producers are now looking to export coal. Coal trains would ship coal from Montana and Wyoming to the Columbia River, where it would be barged overseas.

The coal pie

Coal plants generate power for three cents a kilowatt hour. “Clean coal” isn’t a type of coal but a process to clean it up, capturing particulates and green-house emitting carbon dioxide. It’s an expensive process.

Clean coal costs 6 cents a kilowatt hour. Most renewable projects, like wind and solar, are in the range of 15 to 20 cents a kilowatt hour. But wind and solar are getting cheaper fast and new Natural Gas deposits are making the “clean” alternative to coal more attractive.

The cost of electricity in dollars per Mw/Hours, generated from Wind and Solar, has already reached parity with natural gas in some areas and is now approaching the low cost of coal. Utility-Scale Solar has fallen more than 70 percent relative to 2008. Coal may not be a viable business for long.

Sustainable energy advocates call coal supporters naive. Or worse. And visa versa.

The Obama administration in March, 2012 has proposed the first-ever limits on heat-trapping pollution from new power plants, ignoring protests from industry and Republicans who have said the regulation will raise electricity prices and kill off coal, the dominant U.S. energy source. But the proposal also fell short of environmentalists’ hopes because it goes easier than it could have on coal-fired power, one of the largest sources of the gases blamed for global warming.

“The standard will check the previously uncontrolled amount (of carbon pollution) that power plants … release into our atmosphere,” said Lisa Jackson, head of the Environmental Protection Agency.

Coal Fired Powerplants in the NW

PacifiCorp relies on 26 coal-fired boilers scattered over five western states to provide about 60 percent of electricity to customers in six states: Oregon, Washington, California, Wyoming, Utah and Idaho.

Portland General Electric, by contrast, gets some 30 percent of its power from coal. It owns Oregon’s lone coal-fired plant in Boardman and a share of one more in Montana.

Boardman coal fired power plant

The Boardman coal-fired plant accounts for 15 percent of the power provided by PGE, Oregon’s largest electric utility.

The vast majority of Washington’s electricity comes from hydropower, with just over 13 percent coming from coal. Pacific Power’s share of coal is 40%, according to Washington State’s online reports (pdf).

PacifiCorp relies on a fleet of 26 coal-fired boilers at 11 locations in Montana, Wyoming, Utah, Arizona and Colorado, reports the Oregonian. Those plants provide almost two-thirds of the electricity consumed by customers in its six-state territory, and their low-cost output partly explains why Pacific Power’s rates in Oregon remain lower than PGE’s. But PacifiCorp’s reliance on coal plants brings the utility to an expensive juncture, says the Oregonian.

Facebook’s data center in Prineville, Oregon is receiving a “green” backlash since its electric utility, Pacific Power, will likely be getting most of its power from a coal-powered generator in Boardman, Oregon.

Facebook's data center in Prineville

Like other data centers from Google, Amazon and Microsoft which are located along the Columbia for cheap electricity, Facebook is designing its own data centers. The company’s facility went live in Prineville, Oregon at the beginning of 2011, wringing every watt from its coal-powered electric utility.

Boardman coal field

Apple’s data center in Maiden, North Carolina is powered by coal, but Apple is building a 20 MW solar array plus a 5 MW fuel cell farm that it plans to run entirely on biogas (eventually).

Apple bought 160 acres in Prineville near the Facebook data center and is now constructing a 10,000 square-foot, server farm.

World Coal Supplies

Apple’s 31-megawatt data center in Prineville will use enough energy to power five cities of Prineville’s size, according to The Oregonian. The Oregon facility will open using only renewable energy, according to Chief Financial Officer Peter Oppenheimer.

Facebook avoided tiered energy rates, due to a formula used by the Bonneville Power Administration, the federal agency that operates dams on the Columbia River and sells the power at cost to utilities.

Pacific Power supplies Prineville electricity from the nearby Boardman coal-fired plant.

No active commercial coal mines remain in Oregon, and the state plans to phase out Oregon’s last coal-fired plant in Boardman by 2020. Still, almost 40 percent of the state’s electricity still comes from coal-burning power plants, mostly from Pacific Power’s coal-fired plants.

The Global Coal Market

Coal currently accounts for 28 percent of the world’s energy consumption and generates 42 percent of the world’s electrical supply. The U.S. has 28 percent of global coal reserves, but just nine export terminals — all on the East Coast. The only West Coast options are three terminals in British Columbia, but producers in the coal-rich Powder River Basin of Montana and Wyoming are thirsty for a new path to meet demand from developing nations like China.

U.S. coal consumption fell nearly 5 percent last year to just over 1 billion short tons, according to data from U.S. Energy Information Administration. It’s expected to fall another 4 percent this year to 962 million tons.

Coal Use in the United States

Global energy use is projected to grow by 53 percent through 2035. Rising Asian demand has prompted coal companies in Montana and Wyoming’s Powder River Basin [1] to push hard for Northwest export space.

World Electricity Use

Arch Coal’s Black Thunder is the biggest mine in the Powder River Basin.

Arch Coal’s Black Thunder Mine

According to the International Energy Agency, the planet’s population will increase by one billion residents by 2035, with the majority of this new population in the middle-class – demanding more cheap energy.

Renewables alone just won’t meet the growth in demand, say many analysts. Oil and coal resources, they say, are essential for the future.

“Lower energy prices in the United States mean that it is well-placed to reap an economic advantage, while higher costs for energy-intensive industries in Europe and Japan are set to be a heavy burden,” according to Faith Birol, IEA Chief Economist.

An Environmental Impact Study is prepared when a proposed project is likely to have significant adverse environmental impacts. The State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA) co-lead agencies are Cowlitz County and Ecology. A report summarizing and categorizing comments received during scoping is posted on the EIS website.

While Cowlitz County and Ecology are overseeing this EIS under SEPA, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is developing a separate EIS under the federal National Environmental Policy Act.

Meanwhile, under a process separate from the coal plan review, Washington’s Department of Ecology is working with Northwest Alloys-Alcoa and Millennium to inspect and clean up the mess left by Reynolds Aluminum.

The three agencies are using a coordinated process to create the two separate EISs.

Millennium sees their coal proposal for Longview as the rejuvenation of a decades-old former industrial operation into a state-of-the-art facility with international reach.

The Sierra Club and other environmental groups have scuttled three of six coal terminals proposed in the Pacific Northwest that would have shipped as much as 146 million metric tons annually to booming markets in Asia. Those include the Port of Gray’s Harbor, Kinder Morgan’s Port Westward Project, and the coal export proposal for Coos Bay. But there were other factors that caused those proposals to drop away, including rail access and congestion.

While U.S. coal demand has slid to the lowest level in 24 years, it’s the world’s fastest-growing energy source, forecast to rise 2.3 percent a year through 2018, according to the IEA.

“Like it or not, the coal is here to stay for a long time to come,” Keisuke Sadamori, the director for energy markets and security at the IEA.

China will keep importing coal and much of it will come from U.S. mines via Canadian ports where companies including Westshore Terminals and Ridley Terminals are sending as much as 3.76 million tons a month abroad.

China imported about 360 million tons last year and is expected to increase its reliance on the fuel by 54 percent by 2035, according to a Feb. 27 ICF International report. The country has 558 gigawatts of new coal-fired power plant capacity in the works, although China’s recent efforts to curb pollution may slow exports from the U.S. In April, 2014, China passed the biggest changes in 25 years to punish polluters.

Coal Export Proposals for the Columbia River

Exporting coal to Asia from Oregon is on the front burner[2] since other West Coast facilities are at capacity and the Columbia River region is a straight shot from the Powder River Basin where the coal is, in southeast Montana and northeast Wyoming. China has lots of coal – but it’s up north, far from most of the industry in southern China.

Half a dozen major coal export terminals have now been proposed for the Northwest. If all of the projects were built, as much as 150 million tons of coal per year could be exported from the Northwest, nearly 50 percent more than the nation’s entire coal export output last year, reports the NY Times.

Proposed NW Coal Export Facilities
Name Location Tonage Backer
1. Cherry Point Gateway Pacific Bellingham WA 48 SSA Marine
2. Port of Gray’s Harbor Aberdeen WA 5 Puget Sound and Pacific Railroad – Rocky Mountain coal
3. Millennium Bulk Longview OR 44 Amber Energy
4. Port Westward Project Clatskanie OR 15 Kinder Morgan
5. Morrow Pacific Clatskanie OR 8 Amber Energy
6. Port of Coos Bay Coos Bay OR  ? Mitsu

Coal Export Proposal Dropouts.

Where once there were six coal export proposals in the Northwest, now there are three.

Port of Gray’s Harbor and Port of Coos Bay dropped out early in 2013. Kinder Morgan decided not to seek permits at the Port of St. Helens later in May of 2013, reports The Oregonian.

“We looked at multiple options and different footprints, but we couldn’t find one compatible with the facility we wanted to construct,” said company spokesman Allen Fore.

The decision leaves three other coal export proposals still under consideration in the Northwest: the Cherry Point facility near Bellingham, Washington, the Millenium Bulk terminal at Longview, Washington, and at Boardman OR/Port Westward in Oregon. That proposal by Amber Energy would barge coal from Boardman to Port Westward, where Kinder Morgan previously planned their export facility.

The United States uses about 1 billion tons of coal a year, with about 40 percent of the coal currently coming from the Powder River Basin. It is the single largest source of coal mined in the United States, more than twice the production of second-place West Virginia, and more than the entire Appalachian region.

The market for coal is receding in the United States but increasing in China and India. New pollution restrictions on coal-fired power plants were enacted by Congress in 2012, increasing the cost of operation. At the same time, huge reserves of much cleaner Natural Gas are now available, relatively inexpensively, enabled by the fracking process.

Natural gas is now often cheaper than coal in the United States. Power plants are now moving from coal to natural gas on a large scale. Coal producers aren’t selling as much product.

Coal producers hope China will take up the slack and want to build export facilities in Washington and Oregon.

Planned Coal Export Facilities

The opposition group, Friends of Columbia Gorge has a Presentation that shows an overview of the coal fields in the Powder River Basin, in southeast Montana and northeast Wyoming, and the expected coal train route through the Northwest.

Columbia River Gorge

According to Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber, the coal projects would require as many as 63 coal trains a day, traveling through “choke points”, and may boost Columbia River ship traffic by 70 percent.

Last year, China imported 182 million metric tons of coal, surpassing Japan as the world’s largest coal importer. That amount is more than the capacity of four existing coal terminals in Alaska and British Columbia and new ones proposed in the Pacific Northwest terminals that would export 100 million tons combined — including the coal terminal in Longview (44 million tons), Cherry Point (48 million tons) and near Clatskanie (8 million tons) [3]. Presumably that would total more than 20 trainloads daily. Not to mention the oil trains, which add many more mile long trains to Vancouver WA and Clataskanie OR.

Five Coal Export Terminals

A figure of one coal train a day to deliver 5 million tons a year has been used by some, but that figure requires substantiation. According to Carrix/SSA, the total number of coal train trips per day (arriving full, leaving empty) to transport 48 million tons of coal per year would be in the range of 16 to 18, reports CoalFreeGorge. If you divide 48 tons by 16 train trips, that seems to indicate 3 tons per year per train trip (coming and going).

China’s Rising Coal Imports

Exporting 150 million tons of coal produces about as much carbon dioxide as 60 million cars, notes the Washington Post. Would blocking these export terminals have any impact on the growth of coal in China? There’s some evidence that it could.

The politics are getting heated, with an increasingly bitter battle between jobs vs the environment.

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