PORTLAND —Throttling back on coal-fired electricity, utility company PacifiCorp plans massive investments in renewable energy that will include — by 2036 — a huge boost in Washington state solar energy production.
The plan announced Thursday offers more evidence of a big shift by the power industry away from coal, a move that continues even as President Donald Trump champions fossil fuels. The change has been driven largely by declining costs for solar and wind power, tax incentives that favor renewable investments, and some state legislation pushing their development.
The Portland-based company’s blueprint for the next two decades also spotlights the emergence of battery storage technology, which would be paired with solar projects in Washington and other states so that some of the power generated can be saved for hours when the sun has faded but demand may be peaking.
The plan reflects new technological opportunities that “are simply more cost-effective to meet our customer needs,” said Rick Link, a PacifiCorp vice president, in a Thursday teleconference with reporters.
In Washington, PacifiCorp proposes solar farms able to generate 814 megawatts of power that would be built between 2024 and 2034, coupled with 204 megawatts of battery storage. So far in Washington, the few utility-scale solar projects completed are less than 50 megawatts although several larger projects have been proposed.
PacifiCorp is a subsidiary of investor Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway Energy. The utility has long relied heavily on coal-fired plants — many of them in Wyoming —to provide about 56 percent of the energy needs of its 1.7 million Western electricity customers, including more than 120,000 in Washington’s Columbia, Garfield, Kittitas, Yakima and Walla Walla counties. This coal dependence has made PacifiCorp a target of environmental groups pushing to end electrical generation from fossil fuels, which create greenhouse gas emissions that drive climate change.
The PacifiCorp plan made public Thursday calls for closing two thirds of PacifiCorp coal units by 2030, and most of the remaining units by 2038. During that time, there would be billions of dollar of investment in improving transmission networks and in renewable projects that collectively would have more than 1.5 times the generation capacity of Washington’s Grand Coulee Dam.
Most of the 4,600 megawatts of PacifiCorp wind power would be either developed by the company — or acquired from other developers — during the next 20 years. Most of those projects would be in Wyoming.
Solar would play an even larger role in PacifiCorp’s future. More than 6,300 megawatts of solar generation would come online by 2038, almost half off that placed in Utah.
Christopher Thomas, a senior campaign manager for the Sierra Club, called the PacifiCorp plan “an important moment” because the utility is “acknowledging that its coal fleet is expensive and we have many cheaper options.” But he said the imperatives of climate change require a faster shutdown of PacifiCorp coal plants that the utility’s timeline announced Thursday.
Washington state, in legislation approved earlier this year, calls for a 2025 end to coal-fired power electricity provided to utility customers. The wording of the law calls for the elimination of coal-fired power from the “allocation of electricity” and PacifiCorp officials expect that phrasing will enable the utility to keep serving its Washington customers even as some of the coal plants keep operating.
Environmentalists have argued that coal plants are increasingly uneconomic, and that a rapid phase out would save ratepayers money.
PacifiCorp’s Link said the shutdown of coal-fired power is spread through the decades to allow the utility to maintain reliability, with some coal plants ramping up and down to balance out the fluctuations of renewables.
Link said another risk of shutting down the coal fired power plants on a tighter timeline would be shortages of generation that would require the utility to go out onto the open market and buy power. That’s an option that could be expensive if a broader move to shut down coal-fired plants across the West drives up spot prices for electricity.
State Sen. Reuven Carlyle, a Washington Democrat who helped push the Washington clean power law through the Legislature, said PacifiCorp’s plan shows that “fundamental economics — not politics” is driving the shift to renewables. “The gig is up and the market is moving.”