As U.S. Coal Plants Shutter, One Town Tests an Off-Ramp

By: and - March 4, 2020 12:00 am

The TransAlta coal plant in Centralia, Washington, will fully close down by 2025, as part of an agreement that will see million invested to help the community prepare for the transition. Ted S. Warren/The Associated Press

CENTRALIA, Wash. — Later this year, the first of two burners is scheduled to shut down at the Centralia Coal Plant in this rural Washington state community halfway between Seattle and Portland, Oregon. When the second burner is extinguished in 2025, it will end an operation that, for years, has produced about a tenth of Washington’s carbon emissions.

The closure will be a win for environmentalists and left-leaning lawmakers who want to fight climate change. The town, however, will lose a significant taxpayer. And nearly 200 people will lose their jobs.

Aging coal plants nationwide are going out of business, unable to compete with cheap natural gas and squeezed by Democratic-driven policies that compel utilities to sell more electricity generated by renewable sources such as solar and wind. In just over a decade, more than half the nation’s 530 coal plants have shut down or announced plans to do so.

Yet even as Democratic lawmakers in states such as Washington, Maryland, New Mexico and Colorado push policies that accelerate plant closures, they’re trying to ease the economic pain for workers and communities by funding job training and providing economic development assistance.

President Donald Trump and some Republican lawmakers in states such as Wyoming, meanwhile, have called for saving coal plants and the local jobs and tax revenue they generate.

At the same time, though, Wyoming lawmakers also are debating setting aside ,000 to help workers in a mass layoff, including through coal mine closures.

As Centralia’s experience shows, it’s complicated for rural places with coal-heavy economies to bounce back from a plant closure — even with help.

A one-of-a-kind deal struck by lawmakers, environmentalists, local leaders and the power plant owner — Canada-based TransAlta — in 2011 gave Centralia more than a decade to prepare for the plant closure. It requires TransAlta to provide million for economic development, support for displaced workers, energy technology and energy efficiency.

The money is given out via grants overseen by a board comprised of company and local leaders. It’s one of the largest investments to date to help a coal community adjust, but its proponents acknowledge that it won’t make the transition painless.

Local officials say they are excited about new wind and solar projects backed by TransAlta and others, which have sprung up independently of the agreement, but those will create a fraction of the jobs and tax base that the coal plant has historically provided. And attempts to bring new businesses to the area have so far been disappointing.

“[Economic development] has not worked that well,” said Nancy Hirsh, who helped broker the 2011 deal as policy director of the NW Energy Coalition, which advocates for clean energy in the region, and serves on the board that’s disbursing the TransAlta money. “As far as a new economic engine in that county, that part has been challenging.”

States Push for a Just Transition

Democrats — whether they’re presidential candidates championing a “Green New Deal” or state lawmakers — have tried to advance policies that phase out coal while helping laid-off workers.

Colorado legislators last year set statewide goals for greenhouse gas reduction and built a roadmap to help utilities such as Xcel Energy, the state’s largest, shift to carbon-free energy. At the same time, they created a new “Just Transition” office tasked with supporting coal-dependent communities as power plants close.

Members of the office’s advisory committee are expected this summer to send state regulators a plan to help such places.

“It might be that there’s a role for the utilities, or a role for other new providers,” said Colorado House Speaker KC Becker, a Democrat and sponsor of both bills. “It might be that there’s state money. But I think that really what’s important is that local communities be involved.”

In West Virginia, a Democratic state delegate has introduced a bipartisan bill to create a similar office there.

No Republicans voted for Colorado’s transition office bill, however, and Becker said communities facing coal-plant closures didn’t support it.

The law doesn’t set aside money to help workers or communities, and the office will be run out of Denver – far from rural areas hit hardest by the closures.

“I think, you see, it doesn’t give communities a great deal of comfort,” said Bonnie Petersen, director of Associated Governments of Northwest Colorado, a council of local governments.

State Rep. Perry Will, a Republican who voted against the bill, said the advisory committee could get something done, given time. But, he added, coal-mining and power-plant jobs may not be replaceable, and he questioned policies that take such jobs away.

Will’s rural Colorado district includes one of the state’s largest coal plants, Craig Station, which co-operative power supplier Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association plans to shut down by 2030.

“I just feel like there’s a war on rural Colorado. And I don’t care if it’s coal or wanting to shut down private prisons,” Will said. “Because not every rural community has a ski area, right?”

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Alex Brown
Alex Brown

Based in Seattle, Alex Brown covers environmental issues for Stateline. Prior to joining Stateline, Brown wrote for The Chronicle in Lewis County, Washington state.

Sophie Quinton

Sophie Quinton writes about fiscal and economic policy for Stateline. Previously, she wrote for National Journal.