Boardman’s Chimney is demolished, marking the end of a coal era in Oregon

A demolition contractor on Thursday implode the imposing chimney and the 19-story boiler at Portland General Electric’s closed coal-fired power plant near Boardman, symbolically bringing the era of coal-fired power generation to Oregon. Imported electricity generated from coal is still flowing through transmission cables across the Pacific Northwest, but that also appears to be ending soon.

Watch a video of the demolition:

Strategically placed explosives toppled the 656-foot-tall pile like a logger might chop down a tree and collapsed the adjacent boiler building into a pile of twisted concrete and steel pieces. Within seconds, a huge cloud of dust enveloped the partially dismantled coal-fired power plant. A small crowd of onlookers invited by PGE, including former factory workers, booed and hooted, but mostly refrained from cheering or clapping as the moment was tinged with sadness or melancholy for many.

“Very emotional for me and very emotional for many people I have worked with for several years,” said Brad Jenkins, vice president of utility operations for PGE, former plant manager at Boardman.

“The coal plant was just a workhorse of the fleet for 40 years,” Jenkins said. “But if you look at the landscape here, we have a lot of clean, renewable resources coming in. We’re in transition and that’s just part of that transition.”

The towering chimney of Portland General Electric’s closed coal-fired power plant near Boardman has fallen, heralding the end of the era of coal-fired power generation in Oregon, September 15, 2022.

MacGregor Campbell/OPB

PGE live-streamed the controlled demolition on social media, but did not allow comment. Before the explosion, a handful of people on the utility’s Facebook page lamented the disappearance of the coal-fired power plant. A recurring theme among these commentators was that the Northwest needed reliable baseload power, such as that provided by Boardman to balance intermittent renewable energy sources.

Jenkins said the region’s fleet of natural gas-fired power plants would provide grid stability for years to come until they are phased out and replaced with developing zero-emissions technologies.

A long legacy in Mid-Columbia in a cloud of smoke and dust

The Boardman Coal Generating Station operated from 1980 until its early retirement in 2020. It is located in Morrow County about 11 miles southwest of Boardman – where the nearest residences are – and about an hour’s drive up the eastern end of the Columbia River Gorge. The plant’s 585 megawatt generating capacity has long been the largest source of electricity for Oregon’s largest utility. It was also the state’s largest source of climate pollution. There are now no operating coal-fired power plants in the state of Oregon.

‘It’s a bit bittersweet,’ said Morrow County Commissioner Don Russell, who befriended many coal plant workers and had a view from his home on the pile landmark, which was taller than Seattle’s Space Needle. “The approximately 125 permanent jobs they had there were really coveted jobs.”

“For Morrow County, at one point, this plant was our biggest taxpayer by a very large margin,” Russell added before watching the demolition from the viewing area. He said the plant’s closure had limited economic effects, as the rural county recently diversified its economy with Amazon data centers and a number of renewable energy projects.

PGE executives decided more than a decade ago to close the Boardman plant by 2020 when the economic and environmental outlook for coal-fired power darkened. The announcement helped settle a Clean Air Act lawsuit brought by green groups, and PGE avoided having to perform costly emissions control upgrades down the road.

The closure eliminated approximately 2 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions from the plant each year. (That amount of carbon dioxide is equivalent to the annual pollution of about 431,000 passenger cars in average use, according to the EPA’s greenhouse gas calculator.) The shutdown also ended emissions of mercury and sulfur dioxide which were responsible for the haze and air pollution in the surrounding area and the scenic gorge area.

In the short term, PGE replaced Boardman’s electricity with a wide range of other resources, partly purchased under contract from other producers. Jenkins said renewables will play a prominent role in the future, potentially including a 50 MW company-owned solar farm proposed for the coal plant site that could reuse existing transmission connections. He also praised the reliability and flexibility of PGE’s large natural gas-fired power station at Boardman, the Carty Generating Station, which opened in 2016 across from the former coal-fired plant.

The transition from old to new is also reflected in the immediate area of ​​PGE’s Wheatridge Wind, Solar and Storage Complex, which was brought fully online in central Morrow County earlier this year.

PGE spokespersons said some of the Boardman coal plant workers retired when the plant was decommissioned, many transferred to other roles at the company and some work on demolition, leaving very few people made redundant.

Five years ago, some community members in eastern Oregon had hoped to run the large power plant with an alternative fuel source. One option that was tested was to run the boiler on wood chips or charcoal-like pellets made from thinned woody debris from the forests of the Northwest to reduce the risk of wildfires. This had the potential to provide a dual benefit: making forest restoration more economically viable by turning thinnings into a valuable product, and extending the life of the power plant and its rural jobs with a sustainable fuel source.

PGE briefly experimented with woody biomass and found it was feasible, but ultimately rejected the fuel conversion option amid doubts whether the fuel would be competitive with other renewable resources.

There is only one coal-fired power plant left in the North West

The demolition of the Boardman Coal Generating Station leaves one coal-fired power plant in operation in the Northwest, the TransAlta Coal Generating Station in Centralia, Washington. But its days are also numbered, for the same reasons the Boardman factory closed. Under pressure to reduce emissions, TransAlta reached an agreement with the Washington governor and state legislature to decommission one of the plant’s two units in 2020 and stop burning coal altogether by the end of 2025.

Even with the demise of the coal-fired Boardman plant and the end of TransAlta, a noticeable amount of coal-generated electricity still travels on transmission cables to homes and businesses in the Northwest. The most recent statewide power generation resource mix figures released by the Oregon Department of Energy showed that coal accounted for 26% of electricity on the grid. of the state in 2020, behind hydroelectricity at 40% and ahead of natural gas (21.5%) and wind power. (seven%).

Washington state is more dependent on hydroelectric generation than its neighbors (hydropower’s share is about 55%), but its electric utilities’ overall resource mix still included about 10% coal in 2020, according to an analysis by the Washington Department of Commerce. Coal ranks third, just behind natural gas (13%) and ahead of wind (5%) and nuclear (4%).

Besides the juice from the Centralia coal-fired plant, coal-fired electricity on the Northwest grid today comes primarily from large power plants located near coal mines in Wyoming, Montana, and Utah. Power buyers are primarily investor-owned utilities in the region – PGE, Avista, Idaho Power, Pacific Power and Puget Sound Energy. Utilities get first dibs on wholesale hydro and nuclear power distributed by Bonneville Power Administration.

Between 2016 and 2021, the Oregon Legislature passed some of the most aggressive clean energy laws in the nation. Lawmakers first set a deadline of 2030 to completely eliminate coal-fired electricity from the grid in the state. A follow-up action last year requires the state’s largest utilities, including PGE and Pacific Power, to achieve zero emissions for all electricity generation by 2040.

In Washington state, utilities must phase out all coal-generated electricity by the end of 2025 under clean energy rules passed by the Legislature in 2019.

Some environmental interests, including the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign, are lobbying Northwest utilities and state regulators to accelerate coal phase-outs to meet self-imposed climate goals and protect public health.

A spokesperson for PGE said the utility expects the demolition and dismantling of the Boardman Coal Generating Station to be fully completed by the spring of 2023. Thursday’s explosive dismantling of the tall chimney has was orchestrated by entrepreneur Brandenburg, a big name in the specialized world of industrial explosion relics.

Watch the crowd react to the demolition of the chimney.

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