Warnings of rate hikes as Oregon becomes 1st state to kill coal

The massive coal-fired plant in Boardman, Ore., is just four years away from being shut down for good – at that point, Oregon coal production will be no more, after the state became the first in the nation to completely ban coal power.

The mandate, signed into law earlier this year, was the result of an environmentalist-fueled push by the Democrat-controlled legislature. Under the plan, coal production will end once the Boardman plant shutters in 2020 – utilities would still be able to buy coal power from out of state for another 10 years, until a 2030 deadline to end coal use entirely.

But the phase-out already has groups warning that residents are headed for big rate increases and brownouts.

"This is basically a wind mandate," said the Cascade Policy Institute's John Charles, while suggesting alternative energy sources won’t be able to meet the state’s needs. "There's no way wind can physically power the grid because days, weeks on end, wind produces zero."

Coal has been in decline for years. In 2005, coal made up 51 percent of the electricity used in the U.S. Last year, it met 40 percent of the need.

In Oregon, coal power still fills one-third of the electricity demand. Despite a building boom, renewables such as wind and solar power make up just 8 percent of the electricity portfolio.

The major utilities supported the coal ban even though officials can't say for sure how they'll keep the lights on. They feared a ballot initiative that would have been even less flexible.

"If the cost of meeting this renewable standard is too high for customers, we don't have to meet it," said Ryerson Schwark, a spokesman for PacifiCorp. "If meeting it will impact the reliability of the grid, we don't have to meet it."

A major problem could be getting any new power to the grid. A U.S. Chamber of Commerce report, titled “Project No Project,” found 351 recent ventures that never got built -- 140 of the projects were for renewable power. Many were killed due to legal challenges from environmental groups.

Bill Kovacs, from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said there are 42,000 pages of federal environmental regulations‎.

"Virtually anything you can find that's in federal law that isn't being complied with can be used as the basis of a lawsuit to stop the project," Kovacs said.

One example of this is playing out in Oregon, where renewable power has become more critical due to the coal ban. The 133-turbine, 399 MW Saddle Butte Wind Park proposed for a large piece of land in Eastern Oregon near Boardman has been under challenge for several years. The developer, fed up with the lengthy process, has stopped paying $30,000 in fees he owes the state.

Irene Gilbert of Friends of Grand Rhonde Valley, which is fighting the project, sums up the growing wind farm fatigue.

"When they're done, there will be nowhere for animals or people to be in eastern Oregon without living under a wind turbine," she said.

But some still defend the push to end coal power.

"The people of Oregon were very interested in saying, 'hey, let's find a way to get rid of coal,'" said Cliff Gilmore of Renewables Northwest.