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Aerial photograph of Colstrip, Mont., from the early 1980s. (Photo: David T. Hanson)

Aerial photograph of Colstrip, Mont., from the early 1980s. (Photo: David T. Hanson)


Montana Coal Fuels Puget Sound Energy

John Ryan

Washington state gets most of its electricity from hydropower, but that's not true for customers of the state's biggest utility. Puget Sound Energy relies on coal to keep its customers' lights on.


If you live inside the Seattle city limits, your electricity comes from Seattle City Light. That means the juice coming out of your walls probably originated from a dam in eastern Washington or in the North Cascades. Wherever it came from, your power used very little fossil fuel and contributed little or nothing to climate change.

If you live elsewhere in the Puget Sound region, your power probably comes from privately owned Puget Sound Energy, based in Bellevue.

The power coming out of your walls most likely started at PSE's coal–burning power plant in eastern Montana. A little more than one third of PSE's electricity comes from the plant it co–owns in Colstrip, Montana. That makes Colstrip coal the number–one source of electricity for Puget Sound Energy customers.

Grant Ringel is spokesman for PSE.

Ringel: "We are very sensitive to keeping our customers' bills reasonable. Colstrip plays a key role in keeping costs down, and it is in compliance with environmental regulations."

Electricity use in a typical household served by Puget Sound Energy pumps out about a thousand pounds of greenhouse gases every month — at least 20 times more than a Seattle City Light household is responsible for.

PSE electricity also emits smaller amounts of other pollutants like mercury and sulfur dioxide.

Environmental groups gave notice on Wednesday that they will sue Puget Sound Energy and the other owners of the Colstrip power plant for multiple violations of the Clean Air Act.

Ballhorn: "PSE is a good utility with a bad coal problem."

Seth Ballhorn is an organizer with the Sierra Club in Seattle.

Ballhorn: "For about 20 years, the owners of Montana's coal–fired power plant, Colstrip, have actively made modifications to the facility without installing modern pollution controls, which is required by the Clean Air Act. So this is a pretty serious violation of federal law."

Grant Ringel with PSE says the Colstrip plant has added scrubbers and other modern pollution controls that meet or surpass the requirements of the Clean Air Act.

The US Environmental Protection Agency is preparing to start regulating emissions of greenhouse gases from power plants. It's those gases that make coal the most harmful fuel for the global climate.

Ringel: "As I said, we will comply with regulations as they change. We are not married to any particular technology. We have a history of making adjustments, and if a plant no longer serves our customers, we won't use it. Right now, Colstrip does serve our customers very well."

PSE will be adding more coal to its mix in the years ahead. The utility signed a long–term contract on Wednesday to buy coal power from the TransAlta plant in Centralia, Washington.

By state law, that plant will stop burning coal by the year 2025. But spokesman Grant Ringel says Puget Sound Energy has no plans to stop using coal at its plant in Montana.

The Colstrip power plant is the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the western United States.

I'm John Ryan, KUOW News.

© Copyright 2012, KUOW

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