PSE negotiates a contract to keep coal flowing to power plants through 2029, but doesn’t rule out earlier exit from Montana.

Share story

Puget Sound Energy is negotiating a coal-supply contract for two Montana power plants that would extend through 2029, but includes provisions for an earlier exit from the deal.

The contract talks come as PSE faces increasing pressure to move from coal to cleaner sources of energy by the middle of the next decade.

“Right now, our customers want two things. They want cleaner energy, and an affordable energy bill that they can manage,” said Andy Wappler, a PSE vice president of customer operations and communications. “And we are working to provide both of those things.”

The current contract secures a flow of coal to Colstrip through 2019 from the nearby Rosebud mine. The new supply contract, expected to be finalized this summer, is being negotiated between PSE and other utilities with Westmoreland Coal Co., and could extend that flow of coal as much as a decade.

Coal combustion releases more carbon emissions per unit of energy than any other fossil fuel. Scientists say these emissions are a key driver of global warming, and reducing coal use has been part of the global strategy to try to limit the effects of climate.

King County’s climate action plan calls for phasing out coal-fired electricity by 2025. It’s part of a broader regional effort to combat climate change that is pushing ahead even as President Donald Trump pulls the United States out of the Paris Climate Agreement. And the Seattle City Council is expected to consider a resolution this week for PSE to move away from coal.

PSE is the largest energy utility in the state, providing power to more than 1 million customers.

PSE currently gets some 32 percent of its power from coal. It holds a major stake in the Colstrip complex, which includes four separate units that can collectively generate up to 2,094 megawatts of power and are supplied with coal from the nearby Rosebud mine.

Colstrip is the second-largest coal-fired power complex west of the Mississippi, according to PSE, and power is transmitted across some 1,000 miles of transmission lines to PSE customers in Western Washington.

PSE already has reached agreement with environmental groups to close two of the Montana power units — Colstrip 1 and 2 — by July 2022. These are the two oldest, and smallest of the Colstrip plants.

PSE officials, in an interview with The Seattle Times, said the company anticipates the utility’s involvement with Colstrip 3 and 4 could end around 2030. But they didn’t rule out an exit from coal before that date. They noted they were among the early developers of wind power in the region, and are exploring the options to expand wind and solar power.

In Montana, where the power plants are an important employer and the economic backbone of Colstrip, PSE is under pressure to keep the plants operating as long as possible.

Meanwhile, environmental groups are calling for PSE to step up the pace of a transition to renewable power sources. They are concerned that the contract will complicate efforts to get an earlier shutdown for Colstrip 3 and 4, and extend the life of the Rosebud mine that has resulted in water pollution and damage to an aquifer.

Doug Howell, of the Sierra Club, said a 10-year contract expansion would be “hugely problematic,” and called for Puget Sound to end coal-fired generation by 2025.

“Leadership is about recognizing where your customers, and where the world is going,” Howell said.