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Major Coal-Fired Power Plant in Washington to Go Solar

Renewable Energy
The Centralia Power Plant in Washington state. Robert Ashworth / CC BY 2.0

By Starre Vartan

It was once Washington state's largest coal pit, a terraced, open-to-the-sky strip mine, five miles from the city of Centralia and halfway between Seattle and Portland, Oregon. Today, the coal beds are quiet and blanketed in green, but an adjacent TransAlta power plant with three tall stacks still churns out electricity the traditional way, with coal now supplied from Wyoming.


Not for much longer. The coal mine closed in 2006—the last of the state's mines to be shuttered—and then in 2011, TransAlta reached a deal with the state to shut down the plant. One burner will go cold in 2020 and the other by 2025. This move is part of Washington's larger plan to get carbon dioxide emissions to 1990 levels by 2020. And it should go a long way toward meeting that goal: Today, in a state that relies on hydropower for most of its energy, the Centralia power plant contributes 10 percent of the state's total greenhouse gases—as much as the emissions from 1.75 million cars.

The plant currently also contributes a good deal of electricity, of course. When the Centralia power plant's smokestacks quit spewing in 2025, it will mean a loss of 1,340 megawatts of energy. (Of that, it currently supplies about 380 megawatts to area homes via Puget Sound Energy, or PSE, the largest power supplier in the state.) To help fill that gap, TransAlta is converting about 1,000 acres of its former mine site to a solar farm. In homage to the old pioneer town of Tono that once stood where the mine now craters the earth, Tono Solar will be the land's next incarnation.

"This is a good-news story about moving away from fossil fuels and toward renewables," said NRDC senior attorney Noah Long about the project, which is set to start producing clean energy as soon as late 2020. He points out that beyond its climate benefits, it's good for TransAlta's bottom line, too. "Full reclamation of the site itself can be expensive," he explained. Under the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977, coal companies are required to restore land once they have finished mining it to prevent groundwater contamination and erosion—and avoid leaving behind an eyesore. "By putting solar on the land, it maintains an industrial use," said Long. "This good use of a brownfield brings the costs of reclamation down quite a bit."

It's also a practical reuse, since, handily enough, infrastructure already exists at the Tono Solar site to get the sun-produced electricity to the people who need it. "The location is good because it's close to transmission lines,"' TransAlta lead developer Ryan Schmidt said in a March 2018 presentation. "We know exactly what's in the ground, because we put it there when we reclaimed the site."

Tono Solar won't fully make up for the power generated by the Centralia coal-fired plant—it's expected to provide 180 megawatts of electricity. But already, the region is shaping up to become a hub for alternative energy projects. Just 15 miles from the site of the future solar farm, plans are also in the works for the Skookumchuck Wind Energy Project. That venture expects to produce almost 140 additional megawatts from 38 turbines going up in neighboring Lewis County. (The two projects combined get much closer to making up for the needs of the PSE customers who currently rely on the coal plant.)

Ed Orcutt, Washington State representative for the 20th District, which includes Centralia, pointed out that these projects are near areas with a high demand for electricity—including the growing metro areas of Portland and Seattle. Orcutt noted he'd like to see even more alternative energy in the region and wants to work with area glassmakers to produce solar panels. "I'm interested in finding out how the glass could be locally sourced to get components manufactured and constructed in my district," he said.

And making the region a center for alternative energy could help offset job losses once the coal plant shuts down entirely. While Tono will create more than 300 construction jobs to build the solar installation, it will offer only up to five permanent positions. That's a concern on the mind of Bob Guenther, a local community member who worked at the Centralia power plant for 34 years as a mechanical foreman. Guenther has been active in negotiating for workers' interests alongside environmental considerations and said he'd like to see Centralia become a leader not just in renewable energy production but manufacturing, too. Along with the wind and solar projects, he pointed to an industrial park not far from the soon-to-be-built solar farm, where solar panels and batteries could be built.

"What I'm hoping is that when TransAlta gets going on this project, that we can get some battery storage on it, too," Guenther said, referring to the energy-storing battery units that now go hand-in-hand with many solar plants and help to save up the electricity produced during sunny days for use at other times. "We get so many cloudy and dark days here, and charged batteries could pick up that load and make for smoother power flow," he added. Guenther is optimistic about what these new, high-tech fields could mean for his community. "I think we are going to end up doing some smart things with the Industrial Park, and that will be able to replace all the jobs from the plant closing—and more, too," he said.

Meanwhile, clean energy advocates hope that projects like Tono Solar could serve as a blueprint for similar initiatives. They say there's a good chance that other former industrial sites requiring reclamation—with transmission infrastructure already in place—may be out there as well. "There are lots of places in the Rust Belt of our country, not just coal mines," Long said, noting their uses could be rethought, from former industrial sites to farmland degraded with heavily salted soils. All these are candidates for renewable energy projects.

Rooftop solar panels on a Chino, California, Wal-MartWal-Mart

Of course, when it comes to solar, another advantage is that it's scalable—you don't need a huge plant to process sunlight, after all. Several smaller solar installations—in parking lots, for example, or even on big-box store rooftops, spread out over an area, could be combined together. It's this flexibility that will be key to transitioning away from coal-fired power plants like the one in Centralia and toward clean energy sources like solar.

Already, one project is transforming a former mine site in eastern Kentucky—where coal production has plummeted in the past decade. And with more than six million acres of abandoned mine land in the U.S., according to the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement, that leaves lots of room for innovative newcomers like Tono Solar, the nearby Skookumchuck Wind project—or maybe even for the battery-manufacturing plant that Bob Guenther is angling for in the heart of Washington state.

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By Sherry H-Y. Chou, Aarti Sarwal and Neha S. Dangayach

The patient in the case report (let's call him Tom) was 54 and in good health. For two days in May, he felt unwell and was too weak to get out of bed. When his family finally brought him to the hospital, doctors found that he had a fever and signs of a severe infection, or sepsis. He tested positive for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19 infection. In addition to symptoms of COVID-19, he was also too weak to move his legs.

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We are neurologists specializing in intensive care and leading studies related to neurological complications from COVID-19. Given the occurrence of Guillain-Barre Syndrome in prior pandemics with other corona viruses like SARS and MERS, we are investigating a possible link between Guillain-Barre Syndrome and COVID-19 and tracking published reports to see if there is any link between Guillain-Barre Syndrome and COVID-19.

Some patients may not seek timely medical care for neurological symptoms like prolonged headache, vision loss and new muscle weakness due to fear of getting exposed to virus in the emergency setting. People need to know that medical facilities have taken full precautions to protect patients. Seeking timely medical evaluation for neurological symptoms can help treat many of these diseases.

What Is Guillain-Barre Syndrome?

Guillain-Barre syndrome occurs when the body's own immune system attacks and injures the nerves outside of the spinal cord or brain – the peripheral nervous system. Most commonly, the injury involves the protective sheath, or myelin, that wraps nerves and is essential to nerve function.

Without the myelin sheath, signals that go through a nerve are slowed or lost, which causes the nerve to malfunction.

To diagnose Guillain-Barre Syndrome, neurologists perform a detailed neurological exam. Due to the nerve injury, patients often may have loss of reflexes on examination. Doctors often need to perform a lumbar puncture, otherwise known as spinal tap, to sample spinal fluid and look for signs of inflammation and abnormal antibodies.

Studies have shown that giving patients an infusion of antibodies derived from donated blood or plasma exchange – a process that cleans patients' blood of harmful antibodies - can speed up recovery. A very small subset of patients may need these therapies long-term.

The majority of Guillain-Barre Syndrome patients improve within a few weeks and eventually can make a full recovery. However, some patients with Guillain-Barre Syndrome have lingering symptoms including weakness and abnormal sensations in arms and/or legs; rarely patients may be bedridden or disabled long-term.

Guillain-Barre Syndrome and Pandemics

As the COVID-19 pandemic sweeps across the globe, many neurologic specialists have been on the lookout for potentially serious nervous system complications such as Guillain-Barre Syndrome.

Though Guillain-Barre Syndrome is rare, it is well known to emerge following bacterial infections, such as Campylobacter jejuni, a common cause of food poisoning, and a multitude of viral infections including the flu virus, Zika virus and other coronaviruses.

Studies showed an increase in Guillain-Barre Syndrome cases following the 2009 H1N1 flu pandemic, suggesting a possible connection. The presumed cause for this link is that the body's own immune response to fight the infection turns on itself and attacks the peripheral nerves. This is called an "autoimmune" condition. When a pandemic affects as many people as our current COVID-19 crisis, even a rare complication can become a significant public health problem. That is especially true for one that causes neurological dysfunction where the recovery takes a long time and may be incomplete.

The first reports of Guillain-Barre Syndrome in COVID-19 pandemic originated from Italy, Spain and China, where the pandemic surged before the U.S. crisis.

Though there is clear clinical suspicion that COVID-19 can lead to Guillain-Barre Syndrome, many important questions remain. What are the chances that someone gets Guillain-Barre Syndrome during or following a COVID-19 infection? Does Guillain-Barre Syndrome happen more often in those who have been infected with COVID-19 compared to other types of infections, such as the flu?

The only way to get answers is through a prospective study where doctors perform systematic surveillance and collect data on a large group of patients. There are ongoing large research consortia hard at work to figure out answers to these questions.

Understanding the Association Between COVID-19 and Guillain-Barre Syndrome

While large research studies are underway, overall it appears that Guillain-Barre Syndrome is a rare but serious phenomenon possibly linked to COVID-19. Given that more than 10.7 million cases have been reported for COVID-19, there have been 10 reported cases of COVID-19 patients with Guillain-Barre Syndrome so far – only two reported cases in the U.S., five in Italy, two cases in Iran and one from Wuhan, China.

It is certainly possible that there are other cases that have not been reported. The Global Consortium Study of Neurological Dysfunctions in COVID-19 is actively underway to find out how often neurological problems like Guillain-Barre Syndrome is seen in hospitalized COVID-19 patients. Also, just because Guillain-Barre Syndrome occurs in a patient diagnosed with COVID-19, that does not imply that it was caused by the virus; this still may be a coincident occurrence. More research is needed to understand how the two events are related.

Due to the pandemic and infection-containment considerations, diagnostic tests, such as a nerve conduction study that used to be routine for patients with suspected Guillain-Barre Syndrome, are more difficult to do. In both U.S. cases, the initial diagnosis and treatment were all based on clinical examination by a neurological experts rather than any tests. Both patients survived but with significant residual weakness at the time these case reports came out, but that is not uncommon for Guillain-Barre Syndrome patients. The road to recovery may sometimes be long, but many patients can make a full recovery with time.

Though the reported cases of Guillain-Barre Syndrome so far all have severe symptoms, this is not uncommon in a pandemic situation where the less sick patients may stay home and not present for medical care for fear of being exposed to the virus. This, plus the limited COVID-19 testing capability across the U.S., may skew our current detection of Guillain-Barre Syndrome cases toward the sicker patients who have to go to a hospital. In general, the majority of Guillain-Barre Syndrome patients do recover, given enough time. We do not yet know whether this is true for COVID-19-related cases at this stage of the pandemic. We and colleagues around the world are working around the clock to find answers to these critical questions.

Sherry H-Y. Chou is an Associate Professor of Critical Care Medicine, Neurology, and Neurosurgery, University of Pittsburgh.

Aarti Sarwal is an Associate Professor, Neurology, Wake Forest University.

Neha S. Dangayach is an Assistant Professor of Neurology and Neurosurgery, Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.

Disclosure statement: Sherry H-Y. Chou receives funding from The University of Pittsburgh Clinical Translational Science Institute (CTSI), the National Institute of Health, and the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine Dean's Faculty Advancement Award. Sherry H-Y. Chou is a member of Board of Directors for the Neurocritical Care Society. Neha S. Dangayach receives funding from the Bee Foundation, the Friedman Brain Institute, the Neurocritical Care Society, InCHIP-UConn Center for mHealth and Social Media Seed Grant. She is faculty for emcrit.org and for AiSinai. Aarti Sarwal does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

Reposted with permission from The Conversation.


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By Jake Johnson

Unity Task Forces formed by presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders unveiled sweeping party platform recommendations Wednesday that—while falling short of progressive ambitions in a number of areas, from climate to healthcare—were applauded as important steps toward a bold and just policy agenda that matches the severity of the moment.

"We've moved the needle a lot, especially on environmental justice and upping Biden's ambition," said Sunrise Movement co-founder and executive director Varshini Prakash, a member of the Biden-Sanders Climate Task Force. "But there's still more work to do to push Democrats to act at the scale of the climate crisis."

The climate panel—co-chaired by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and former Secretary of State John Kerry—recommended that the Democratic Party commit to "eliminating carbon pollution from power plants by 2035," massively expanding investments in clean energy sources, and "achieving net-zero greenhouse gas emissions for all new buildings by 2030."

In a series of tweets Wednesday night, Ocasio-Cortez—the lead sponsor of the House Green New Deal resolution—noted that the Climate Task Force "shaved 15 years off Biden's previous target for 100% clean energy."

"Of course, like in any collaborative effort, there are areas of negotiation and compromise," said the New York Democrat. "But I do believe that the Climate Task Force effort meaningfully and substantively improved Biden's positions."

 

The 110 pages of policy recommendations from the six eight-person Unity Task Forces on education, the economy, criminal justice, immigration, climate change, and healthcare are aimed at shaping negotiations over the 2020 Democratic platform at the party's convention next month.

Sanders said that while the "end result isn't what I or my supporters would've written alone, the task forces have created a good policy blueprint that will move this country in a much-needed progressive direction and substantially improve the lives of working families throughout our country."

"I look forward to working with Vice President Biden to help him win this campaign," the Vermont senator added, "and to move this country forward toward economic, racial, social, and environmental justice."

Biden, for his part, applauded the task forces "for helping build a bold, transformative platform for our party and for our country."

"I am deeply grateful to Bernie Sanders for working with us to unite our party and deliver real, lasting change for generations to come," said the former vice president.

On the life-or-death matter of reforming America's dysfunctional private health insurance system—a subject on which Sanders and Biden clashed repeatedly throughout the Democratic primary process—the Unity Task Force affirmed healthcare as "a right" but did not embrace Medicare for All, the signature policy plank of the Vermont senator's presidential bid.

Instead, the panel recommended building on the Affordable Care Act by establishing a public option, investing in community health centers, and lowering prescription drug costs by allowing the federal government to negotiate prices. The task force also endorsed making all Covid-19 testing, treatments, and potential vaccines free and expanding Medicaid for the duration of the pandemic.

"It has always been a crisis that tens of millions of Americans have no or inadequate health insurance—but in a pandemic, it's potentially catastrophic for public health," the task force wrote.

Dr. Abdul El-Sayed, a former Michigan gubernatorial candidate and Sanders-appointed member of the Healthcare Task Force, said that despite major disagreements, the panel "came to recommendations that will yield one of the most progressive Democratic campaign platforms in history—though we have further yet to go."

 

Observers and advocacy groups also applauded the Unity Task Forces for recommending the creation of a postal banking system, endorsing a ban on for-profit charter schools, ending the use of private prisons, and imposing a 100-day moratorium on deportations "while conducting a full-scale study on current practices to develop recommendations for transforming enforcement policies and practices at ICE and CBP."

Marisa Franco, director of immigrant rights group Mijente, said in a statement that "going into these task force negotiations, we knew we were going to have to push Biden past his comfort zone, both to reconcile with past offenses and to carve a new path forward."

"That is exactly what we did, unapologetically," said Franco, a member of the Immigration Task Force. "For years, Mijente, along with the broader immigrant rights movement, has fought to reshape the narrative around immigration towards racial justice and to focus these very demands. We expect Biden and the Democratic Party to implement them in their entirety."

"There is no going back," Franco added. "Not an inch, not a step. We must only move forward from here."

Reposted with permission from Common Dreams.