As U.S. Coal Plants Shutter, One Town Tests an Off-Ramp
A one-of-a-kind blueprint for ‘just transition’ out of Centralia, Washington shows how difficult it is to move away from fossil energy, even when support and resources are at hand.
Later this year, the first of two burners is scheduled to shut down at the Centralia Coal Plant in this rural Washington state community halfway between Seattle and Portland, Oregon. When the second burner is extinguished in 2025, it will end an operation that, for years, has produced about a tenth of Washington’s carbon emissions.
The closure will be a win for environmentalists and left-leaning lawmakers who want to fight climate change. The town, however, will lose a significant taxpayer. And nearly 200 people will lose their jobs.
Aging coal plants nationwide are going out of business, unable to compete with cheap natural gas and squeezed by Democratic-driven policies that compel utilities to sell more electricity generated by renewable sources such as solar and wind. In just over a decade, more than half the nation’s 530 coal plants have shut down or announced plans to do so.
Yet even as Democratic lawmakers in states such as Washington, Maryland, New Mexico and Colorado push policies that accelerate plant closures, they’re trying to ease the economic pain for workers and communities by funding job training and providing economic development assistance.
President Donald Trump and some Republican lawmakers in states such as Wyoming, meanwhile, have called for saving coal plants and the local jobs and tax revenue they generate.
At the same time, though, Wyoming lawmakers also are debating setting aside $500,000 to help workers in a mass layoff, including through coal mine closures.
As Centralia’s experience shows, it’s complicated for rural places with coal-heavy economies to bounce back from a plant closure — even with help.
A one-of-a-kind deal struck by lawmakers, environmentalists, local leaders and the power plant owner — Canada-based TransAlta — in 2011 gave Centralia more than a decade to prepare for the plant closure. It requires TransAlta to provide $55 million for economic development, support for displaced workers, energy technology and energy efficiency.
The money is given out via grants overseen by a board comprised of company and local leaders. It’s one of the largest investments to date to help a coal community adjust, but its proponents acknowledge that it won’t make the transition painless.