Bellevue was flushed with green on Monday, July 31.
Several state environmental groups and residents across the county packed Bellevue City Hall’s council chambers during a public hearing with the Washington State Utilities and Transportation Commissioners.
Their mission? To tell the commission to put Puget Sound Energy on a debt schedule that would close a coal plant in Montana by 2025.
Back in January, Bellevue-based Puget Sound Energy filed a rate case that proposed increasing consumers’ rates — 4 percent for electric rates and a 3.2 percent decrease for natural gas rates. Company officials said the money would be used to help with aging businesses, the increased costs to produce electricity and the future expenses of retiring the coal plant. Monday’s public hearing was the first of two on the rate case before the commission is expected to make a decision in December.
The most contentious issue wasn’t on the rate increase request, which would reduce natural gas rates by $22 million a year, yet raise electricity rates by $87 million. It was regarding the timeline in which Puget Sound Energy would close the coal plant in Colstrip, Montana. While the energy company is in the process of shutting down half of the coal plant by 2022, environmental stewards argue the rest of the plant should be on its way out by 2025 instead of the proposed 2035 time frame.
“I think folks are looking out at the national political scene and are seeing that if we’re going to make any progress on climate, it’s going to have to come from the state level and the single most important thing we can do in this state to act on climate is to shutdown Colstrip,” Jessica Koski, the Puget Sound organizer of Beyond Coal’s Sierra Club, said. “It’s the lowest hanging fruit, it’s a big deal.”
In 2015, the coal plant in Colstrip was the third largest climate polluter in the United States, Koski added. It’s one of many Beyond Coal is working to retire. The Sierra Club, based in Seattle, is part of Beyond Coal and leads the effort to shutdown the Colstrip coal plant.
The first target date for greenhouse gas reductions in the Paris Climate Accords, which Gov. Jay Inslee has vowed to uphold, is 2025, and King County’s Strategic Climate Action Plan, which was signed by 14 King County mayors, calls on the county to phase out coal-fired electricity by 2025.
Grant Ringel, a spokesman with Puget Sound Energy, said environmental issues are also “of great concern” to the company, which has been the Pacific Northwest’s largest utility owner of renewable energy since 2006.
Ringel said the company is one of six owners of the Colstrip plant, which was built in the 1970-80s, and its plans to move away from coal are “aggressive,” citing the request to close half of the plant by 2022.
Although the rate increase proposal called for a 2035 depreciation schedule for units 3 and 4, Ken Johnson with Puget Sound Energy said “further accelerating” the schedule to 2025 – per advocates’ requests – could potentially increase customer rates but said it would be minimal – less than 1 percent.
“It will be determined by the commission as this rate case proceeds throughout the litigation process,” Johnson said, noting that a number of rate payers at the public hearing Monday said they would pay more to accomplish a faster shutdown.
In June, the Utilities and Transportation Commission staff recommended Puget Sound Energy take a different approach to paying for the decommission of units 1 and 2 in the coal plant.
Staff recommended the commission rule Puget Sound Energy should lower its rates for natural gas by 6.6 percent ($46 million) and decrease, not increase, electricity rates by 2.2 percent ($54 million).
To fund costs associated with decommissioning and remediation of the first half of the Colstrip site by 2022, commission staff recommended revaluing Puget Sound Energy’s share of the coal plant in Colstrip, which “would allow the company to repurpose a portion of federal treasury grants to an interest-earning account” for that purpose, according to a news release.
That recommendation, however, was made by staff and not the three commissioners who make up the Washington State Utilities and Transportation Commission.
The next public hearing for Puget Sound Energy’s rate case will be at 6 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 31 at the Washington State Utilities and Transportation Commission, 1300 S. Evergreen Park Drive SW in Olympia.
Customers who would like to comment on the case can submit comment online at www.utc.wa.gov/comment, send email to firstname.lastname@example.org, call toll free 1-888-333-9882, or write the Washington State Utilities and Transportation Commission at: P.O. Box 47250 Olympia, Washington 98504.