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Obama's climate speech renews call for utilities to divest from coal

Puget Sound Energy

“It’s the change we have been waiting for.” That’s the response from the Sierra Club to President Obama’s speech on climate change. A major part of his action plan is new limits on carbon emissions from power plants.

Thelocal chapter of the club says even though no new policies will take effect for several years, utilities need to start adjusting now.

A big part of the Sierra Club’scoal-free Washingtoncampaign involves trying to get utilities here to stop buying power and investing in the Colstrip generating station in Montana.

Puget Sound Energy, Colstrip’s biggest owner, gets about 20 percent of rate payers’ power from its smokestacks. It also buys coal power from other sources, bringing PSE's total reliance on coal to about one-third of its portfolio. Doug Howell, who directs the coal-free Washington campaign, says the utility needs to make a decision.

“Are they going to keep propping up this dirty and increasingly expensive coal plant—and they’re going to have expenses that are going to come due very soon, or are they going to redirect all that money to cleaner energy investments right here in Washington state?” he said. 

Howell says Puget Sound Energy just released a 20-year energy plan that continues to rely on Colstrip. He says Obama’s speech should spur the utility to reconsider. And he is encouraging the public tocomment on the plan.

PSE spokesman Grant Ringel says the utility will certainly make adjustments as the new limits on coal become clearer, which may take several years. But in the meantime, he saysthe utility hasn’t been standing still.

“We’ve spent the last decade putting three wind projects in place, and one of the largest energy efficiency projects in place to do something about emissions. And we look forward to the conversation that will lead to the next steps,” Ringel said.

KC Golden with the Washington think-tank Climate Solutions thinks retrofitting the Colstrip plants will prove too expensive for PSE and its other owners.

“In order to just bring it up to existing Clean Air Act standards, let alone what the president announced today, would require hundreds of millions of dollars of new investment in these outdated plants to keep them going," Golden said. 

Golden added power companies and utilities could instead choose to invest more in wind and solar power, energy efficiency and new energy technologies like geothermal, tidal and biomass.   

“So the decision isn’t: do we abandon these plants and build something else? The decision is: what are we going to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on for our new energy sources?" he said. 

Golden agreed with Ringel that Washington is already charting a course toward more clean energy, and said the state's wind farms are a good start.  The last coal plant in the state, Centrailia’s Transalta, is set to shut down in 2025. Golden thinks Washington’s utilities could be entirely coal free by then as well.

In addition to the new limits on coal emissions, President Obama’s climate plan includes new energy efficiency standards for appliances, and scales up clean energy production on public lands.

Bellamy Pailthorp covers the environment for KNKX with an emphasis on climate justice, human health and food sovereignty. She enjoys reporting about how we will power our future while maintaining healthy cultures and livable cities. Story tips can be sent to