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Coal-Free PSE

RE Sources submitted comments earlier this year to support the state-wide effort led by the Sierra Club to make Puget Sound Energy (PSE) a coal-free electric utility. 

While the majority of energy for PSE comes from hydroelectric dams, the utility that powers Whatcom County still gets about 32% of its electricity from coal-fired power plants. 

PSE is the primary owner of one of the largest remaining and dirtiest coal-fired power plants in the Western United States, the Colstrip Generating Facility in Colstrip, Montana.

Your voice as a PSE ratepayer can make a difference over whether or not a highly polluting coal-fired facility continues to provide energy for Washington state homes and businesses, or if we move past this outdated fuel source to cleaner, smarter, and more innovative means of meeting our basic needs.

Status of Coal Usage in Washington State

In Washington, like in most of the country, coal is on its way out. The combination of community-based environmental resistance and the increasing competitiveness of cleaner sources of energy has proven a potent mix: more and more utilities are moving away from coal as a primary energy source. 

In 2003, coal provided 50% of the energy used for electrical generation in the United States, now that number is down to 37% and is expected to continue to decline. The advent of renewables, natural gas fracking, and widespread increases in energy efficiency all have played a significant role in the reduction of coal as a source of electrical energy.

Washington State Energy Portfolio

Washington state has the relative good fortune of being able to source most of its energy from hydroelectric dams and natural gas power plants. While neither source is without significant environmental harm, both come at substantially lower social burden than burning coal, which remains a dominant power source in the Eastern United States. Despite the state's advantages in this area, 14% of Washington's electrical energy in 2011 came from burning coal. Only 2% came from alternative renewable sources, such as wind, solar and biomass.

Washington State Emissions from Electrical Generation

Despite the fact that coal makes up a relatively small part of Washington state's energy portfolio, it accounts for a massive portion of the state's carbon emissions from electrical generation. In 2011, coal emissions accounted for 81% of the state's total carbon output resulting from powering homes and business. PSE itself provided about half of this amount, being among the state's largest utilities and heaviest coal users.

While PSE continues to buy power from Washington's only remaining coal power plant, the Transalta Centralia facility, Transalta entered into an agreement with the state government in 2011 that would phase out this plant by 2025 in an effort to reduce the state's carbon pollution and other toxic emissions. PSE's most substantial emissions actually come from outside the state -- primarily from the Colstrip Generating Facility, which is majority owned by PSE.

PSE's Fuel Mix

Whatcom County's electricity is predominately sourced from PSE, with a couple notable exceptions. PSE operates a natural gas co-generating facility on the Bellingham waterfront, as well as other small generators through the county, that help to power local homes and business. But the lion's share of PSE's energy is generated elsewhere, and compared to other utilities in the state, PSE is heavily reliant on coal to serve its electrical customers. 

While PSE has committed to reducing its emissions in recent years, its continued reliance on coal makes the utility one of the dirtiest producers of electricity in the state.

PSE's total carbon footprint was 15.4 million tons in 2012, the equivalent of approximately 3.2 million cars. The vast majority of these emissions come from burning coal.

About the Colstrip Generating Facility

PSE Colstrip Facility Overview


PSE's primary remaining coal power plant is located in Colstrip, Montana. The facility was built in 1975 and expanded in 1984. This single facility accounts for approximately 20% of PSE's total energy supply, and 30% of its total carbon emissions. The plant is a 2100 megawatt four-boiler steam electric plant, and all of the boilers are fueled primarily by coal from the nearby Rosebud mine. 

It is important to acknowledge that the Colstrip plant has substantially reduced its emissions, especially of mercury, in recent years. But improvements, while badly needed, are only a partial solution -- the continued operation of Colstrip, especially of its oldest burners, present considerable risk to public health, local environments, and global climate stability.

Air Pollution

Colstrip is a substantial emitter of air pollution. The plant stands out even among coal-fired power plants for its emissions -- it is ranked the 8th dirtiest in the entire United States, and has been in some years the dirtiest plant west of the Mississippi. It remains the largest point source of greenhouse gas emissions in the Western United States, burning one rail car of coal every 5 minutes. Rosebud County, where Colstrip is located, has the 3rd highest asthma rate in the state of Montana.
  • Mercury emissions: 560 pounds in 2010 (after reduction)
  • Carbon dioxide equivalent: 18.7 million tons in 2010

Water Pollution

In addition to its emissions into the air, the Colstrip power plant and its associated fly ash ponds are substantial sources of water pollution. Toxic coal ash ponds cover over 500 acres and contain mercury, chromium, boron and arsenic. The ponds have been leaking into local aquifers and ranchlands since the 1970s, and has been the subject of numerous lawsuits. A group of 57 neighboring ranchers and well users won a $25 million settlement from PSE arising from a 2008 lawsuit due to the impact the plant has had on the safety of the water for people and livestock. Levels of boron in nearby aquifers has been measured at 13 times legal limits.

Coal-Free PSE Actions to Date

The campaign to switch PSE off coal and onto cleaner sources of energy has been driven primarily by the Sierra Club and local grassroots groups located in the communities around the Colstrip plant. The effort has included both legal and regulatory measures to reduce the continuing impacts of Colstrip on the local environment, as well as an effort to educate PSE consumers on the costs of burning coal.

Legal Actions to Date

  • 2010: Montana establishes mercury rules, reducing mercury emissions at Colstrip 85%
  • September 2012: Sierra Club challenges consent decree to strengthen remediation for coal ash ponds
  • November 2012: Lawsuit filed in federal court to enforce federal haze rules
  • December 2012: Colstrip's Title V air permit is challenged under mercury and air toxics (MATS) rules
  • March 2013: Federal lawsuit is filed to enforce new source review requirements at Colstrip
Read more about all these legal actions at the Sierra Club website.

Campaign Actions to Date

In addition to legal and regulatory action, the Sierra Club has been pushing a number of public education campaigns to build support for improving and eventually closing Colstrip.
  • Coal-Free PSE is actively pushing consumers to switch to Green Power and urge PSE to close Colstrip.
  • Coal-Free PSE has been working with large consumers like Microsoft and WWU
  • "PSE Coal Plant" barge actions at Lake Washington to raise awareness about Colstrip
"We know that the end point for coal is soon. We know that coal is a dead end."
-- Andy Wappler, VP for Corporate Affairs, PSE

Integrated Resource Plan


Every two years, PSE must submit an Integrated Resource Plan (IRP) to the Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission (UTC). This plan provides the framework for meeting electric load requirements for the next 20 years. This planning process provides the only public comment opportunity to head-off the long-term financing of facilities like Colstrip.

Until October 10, PSE customers have the opportunity to comment on the IRP. You can submit comments to:
  • MAIL TO:
Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission 
P.O. Box 47250 
1300 S. Evergreen Park Dr. SW 
Olympia, WA 98504-7250 
Docket #UE-120767 (and UG-120768) 

Issues with the Current Draft IRP

In the 2013 Draft IRP, PSE concluded “continued reliance on Colstrip reduces cost and market risk to consumers.”

RE Sources submitted comments, along with a number of other conservation and community groups, urging the UTC to address issues with the current IRP proposed by PSE. The current IRP fails short in a number of areas.
  • No price on carbon dioxide is expected in the calculations used to produce the IRP conclusions.
  • No costs from coal ash regulations are included.
  • Settlement costs from contaminated groundwater are omitted, despite existing $25 million settlement.
  • No consideration of costs from SO2 pollution control and compliance with federal air toxics rules.
  • No accounting for increased costs from mining, despite the fact that remaining coal will be increasingly uneconomical to produce.
  • Keeping Colstrip in operation is bad environmentally and economically -- it could mean millions in new compliance costs for PSE customers, including Whatcom County.
By excluding these potential costs, PSE can conclude it's cheaper to continue to operate Colstrip than to transition cleaner sources of energy. PSE's current plan is misleading with regard to Colstrip.

Tell the Utilities and Transportation commission: Please include the social and regulatory costs of carbon emissions in the Integrated Resource Plan for PSE. Demand a true assessment of the environmental costs of Colstrip.

Additional Resources