A Northwest Utility Steps Back From Coal, Pivots To Natural Gas

July 3, 2014 | Northwest Public Radio
CONTRIBUTED BY:
Courtney Flatt

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  • Portland General Electric's Carty Generating Station will come online in two years. The natrual gas plant will power up to 300,000 homes. credit: Courtney Flatt
Portland General Electric's Carty Generating Station will come online in two years. The natrual gas plant will power up to 300,000 homes. | credit: Courtney Flatt | rollover image for more

BOARDMAN, Ore. — Even before the Obama administration’s recent proposal to curb carbon from coal-fired plants, some utility companies were turning away from coal and using more natural gas.

Exhibit A: Portland General Electric’s plans for its Boardman, Oregon location. It’s building a natural gas plant while shutting down its coal plant.

Construction crews are busy at PGE’s newest natural gas generating station. They’re getting ready to pour a concrete foundation for the plant.

Steve Corson is the spokesman for PGE. He said this natural gas plant will eventually generate 440 megawatts, which will power up to 300,000 homes.

“Right here, we’re in the middle of what will be the Carty Generating Station. [We’re] looking at the foundation for the steam turbine. This is kind of the heart of the works,” Corson said during a recent tour.

PGE’s Carty Generating Station is right next to the Boardman coal-fired power plant. The coal plant is scheduled to shut down in 2020. PGE is looking at replacing it with energy from burning torrefied woody biomass. That could mean burning up to 8,000 tons per day to power the plant.

There’s room for this natural gas plant to double in size. This portion of the construction will be wrapped up in two years.

Corson said the plant will help provide power for the ever-growing number of people on the western side of the state. It won’t replace the Boardman coal plant, but it will release fewer carbon emissions than the coal plant.

“It’s capable of cranking out a large amount of power day in and day out,” Corson said.

The Carty Station will be PGE’s second natural gas power plant in Boardman. The company began operating Coyote Springs Generating Station in 1995.

Portland General Electric
Coyote Springs Generating Station
Courtesy of PGE

PGE is also building a smaller plant in Clatskanie, Oregon, to help supplement one of the company’s wind farms. That plant should be finished by next year. There are currently two other PGE natural gas facilities in Clatskanie.

There are at least 17 other proposed natural gas projects in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho. Two of the larger projects are at Cherry Point near Bellingham and Grays Harbor on the Washington coast. But the Northwest Power and Conservation Council says many projects are proposed but aren’t ever built — because of issues like financial problems or demand changes.

According to data from the Northwest Power and Conservation Council, natural gas generation is slightly increasing in the Northwest. The Council expects natural gas generation to increase as the Northwest’s two coal-fired power plants close.

In its most recent natural gas outlook, the Northwest Gas Association says natural gas generation, like PGE’s Carty plant, is one part of the industry that’s expected to grow. Ben Hemson is with the trade association.

“For a long time, it seemed like natural gas wasn’t where the party was, and now there’s a lot of opportunities out there,” Hemson said.

But some environmental groups are not happy about the “new opportunities” for natural gas.

Ted Gleichman heads up the Beyond Natural Gas team for the Sierra Club in Oregon. Gleichman said even though natural gas burns cleaner than coal, it should not be a replacement.

“All of these fossil fuels, at this point in history, are simply destructive processes that are damaging the climate severely,” Gleichman said.

Gleichman said power companies need to invest in renewable energy as a way forward.

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