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March 08, 2013

Montana and Minnesota: Coal vs. Clean Energy

WindIt's easy to get excited about the future, coming off our recent announcement that we're halfway to our goal of retiring one-third of the nation's coal fleet. Seeing those successes city-by-city and state-by-state is inspiring, but it also is a frequent example of how different two places can be when it comes to clean energy and coal, whether they're right next door, or a state or two away.

This week's coal vs. clean energy examples come from Montana and Minnesota.

Having once lived in Montana myself, I can't imagine wanting to ruin such a beautiful big sky with coal pollution -- but that's just what the Colstrip coal plant is doing. The Colstrip plant is one of the largest and most polluting facilities in the U.S., and this week we joined the Montana Environmental Information Center (MEIC) in legally challenging the owners to clean up the plant.

The owners facing federal violations include high-profile companies like Warren Buffett's PacifiCorp, Washington-based Puget Sound Energy (PSE), Pennsylvania Power and Light, Avista Utilities, Portland General Electric, and NorthWestern Energy.

We are demanding that this plant install long overdue modern pollution controls and pay for its Clean Air Act violations.

The reality, though, is that Montana can do better than this coal plant. Even with modern pollution controls, the coal plant would still emit millions of tons of climate pollution equivalent to three million cars, every year.

Because of big polluters like Colstrip, wildfires across the Northwest will grow in intensity and frequency, salmon species will start to disappear, and many downhill and cross-country ski locations will be out of business during our lifetime.

Puget Sound Energy holds the keys to one way to replace the entire Colstrip facility with clean energy: the Lower Snake River Wind Facility in Washington (PDF).

PSE's own data shows that this wind farm could produce almost 1,400 megawatts of energy. The amount of electricity generated by Colstrip's dirty coal plant? Just under 2,000 megawatts. And yet, so far, PSE has built only 340 megawatts of wind capacity at Lower Snake River. PSE is dragging its feet on clean wind power and letting Colstrip continue to poison our air.

Meanwhile, over in Minnesota, clean energy vision is happening. This week a powerhouse coalition came together to launch the Minnesota Clean Energy & Jobs Campaign.

The more than 30 organizations -- businesses, unions, faith groups, environmental organizations, and more -- will support increasing the state's Renewable Electricity Standard to 40 percent by 2030, establishing a solar energy standard of 10 percent by 2030, and a series of policies that will make providing local power generation easier and more cost effective, as well as advancing building and industrial energy efficiency initiatives.

"We know that transitioning to a clean economy -- investing in renewable energy, energy efficiency, and making it cheaper and easier to use -- are the keys to creating good jobs in this state," said Pete Parris, political director for Sheet Metal Workers Local 10 and a representative of the BlueGreen Alliance, a partnership of labor and environmental groups.

"We have an opportunity to stay ahead of the curve -- to create good jobs, and to make sure that we protect the environment for this and the next generation -- we can do that with this agenda."

I applaud this vision in Minnesota and look forward to seeing its successes. Minnesota isn't alone in its diverse coalitions pushing for clean energy. I know there are similar hard-working groups in Montana and Washington.

Closing PSE's Colstrip plant would mean the largest reduction of greenhouse gas emissions in Northwest history -- and they could replace that power with clean energy! How long will the utilities wait to listen to their customers who want clean energy instead of dirty coal?

-- Mary Anne Hitt, Beyond Coal Director

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