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Major Coal-Fired Power Plant in Washington to Go Solar
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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Global Banks, Led by JPMorgan Chase, Invested $1.9 Trillion in Fossil Fuels Since Paris Climate Pact
By Sharon Kelly
A report published Wednesday names the banks that have played the biggest recent role in funding fossil fuel projects, finding that since 2016, immediately following the Paris agreement's adoption, 33 global banks have poured $1.9 trillion into financing climate-changing projects worldwide.
By Patti Lynn
2018 was a groundbreaking year in the public conversation about climate change. Last February, The New York Times reported that a record percentage of Americans now believe that climate change is caused by humans, and there was a 20 percentage point rise in "the number of Americans who say they worry 'a great deal' about climate change."
England faces an "existential threat" if it does not change how it manages its water, the head of the country's Environment Agency warned Tuesday.
By Jessica Corbett
A new analysis revealed Tuesday that over the past two decades heat records across the U.S. have been broken twice as often as cold ones—underscoring experts' warnings about the increasingly dangerous consequences of failing to dramatically curb planet-warming emissions.
By Madison Dapcevich
Ask any resident of San Francisco about the waterfront parrots, and they will surely tell you a story of red-faced conures squawking or dive-bombing between building peaks. Ask a team of researchers from the University of Georgia, however, and they will tell you of a mysterious string of neurological poisonings impacting the naturalized flock for decades.
The initial cause of the fire was not yet known, but it has been driven by the strong wind and jumped the North Santiam River, The Salem Statesman Journal reported. As of Tuesday night, it threatened around 35 homes and 30 buildings, and was 20 percent contained.
The unanimous verdict was announced Tuesday in San Francisco in the first federal case to be brought against Monsanto, now owned by Bayer, alleging that repeated use of the company's glyphosate-containing weedkiller caused the plaintiff's cancer. Seventy-year-old Edwin Hardeman of Santa Rosa, California said he used Roundup for almost 30 years on his properties before developing non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.
"Today's verdict reinforces what another jury found last year, and what scientists with the state of California and the World Health Organization have concluded: Glyphosate causes cancer in people," Environmental Working Group President Ken Cook said in a statement. "As similar lawsuits mount, the evidence will grow that Roundup is not safe, and that the company has tried to cover it up."
Judge Vince Chhabria has split Hardeman's trial into two phases. The first, decided Tuesday, focused exclusively on whether or not Roundup use caused the plaintiff's cancer. The second, to begin Wednesday, will assess if Bayer is liable for damages.
"We are disappointed with the jury's initial decision, but we continue to believe firmly that the science confirms glyphosate-based herbicides do not cause cancer," Bayer spokesman Dan Childs said in a statement reported by The Guardian. "We are confident the evidence in phase two will show that Monsanto's conduct has been appropriate and the company should not be liable for Mr. Hardeman's cancer."
Some legal experts said that Chhabria's decision to split the trial was beneficial to Bayer, Reuters reported. The company had complained that the jury in Johnson's case had been distracted by the lawyers' claims that Monsanto had sought to mislead scientists and the public about Roundup's safety.
However, a remark made by Chhabria during the trial and reported by The Guardian was blatantly critical of the company.
"Although the evidence that Roundup causes cancer is quite equivocal, there is strong evidence from which a jury could conclude that Monsanto does not particularly care whether its product is in fact giving people cancer, focusing instead on manipulating public opinion and undermining anyone who raises genuine and legitimate concerns about the issue," he said.
Many regulatory bodies, including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, have ruled that glyphosate is safe for humans, but the World Health Organization's International Agency for Research on Cancer found it was "probably carcinogenic to humans" in 2015. A university study earlier this year found that glyphosate use increased cancer risk by as much as 41 percent.
Hardeman's lawyers Jennifer Moore and Aimee Wagstaff said they would now reveal Monsanto's efforts to mislead the public about the safety of its product.
"Now we can focus on the evidence that Monsanto has not taken a responsible, objective approach to the safety of Roundup," they wrote in a statement reported by The Guardian.
Hardeman's case is considered a "bellwether" trial for the more than 760 glyphosate cases Chhabria is hearing. In total, there are around 11,200 such lawsuits pending in the U.S., according to Reuters.
University of Richmond law professor Carl Tobias told Reuters that Tuesday's decision showed that the verdict in Johnson's case was not "an aberration," and could possibly predict how future juries in the thousands of pending cases would respond.