At 11:56 a.m. on Oct. 15, the coal-fired Boardman Generating Station generated its last megawatt, and was taken permanently off line by Portland General Electric.

The closure of the 45-year-old coal plant is the result of landmark agreement signed in 2010 between PGE and environmental and consumer advocates, and approved by state regulators.

The Boardman 2020 plan, as it was known, was the first negotiated closure of a coal plant in the nation, and at the time was considered a potential template for closing other coal plants. But soon after the accord was signed, natural gas prices began to collapse and renewables quickly became abundant and cheap, forever shifting the economics of coal-fired generation.

Parties started negotiating the plan in 2008, when coal-fired generation was still competitive with other generating resources. Natural gas prices were hovering between $8 and $13/MMBtu, and penetration of renewable energy, which in those days meant wind energy, was still in the early stages of the industry's first development boom and had not yet saturated the market.

At the time, PGE wanted to invest $541 million in pollution controls to meet the state's regional haze plan and keep Boardman running through 2040. But environmental and consumer advocates argued that the investments were far too costly and pushed the utility to close the plant in 2016.

In 2010, they settled on the "Boardman 2020 plan" which allowed the utility to invest $41 million in emission control equipment to keep the plant running for 10 years, or until Dec. 31, 2020.

The plant went dark earlier than this, on Oct. 15, after burning the bulk of its onsite coal supply.

Bob Jenks, executive director of the Oregon Citizens' Utility Board, was one of the architects for the Boardman 2020 plan and called Oct. 15 a "big day for Oregon energy policy."

"Back when we worked on the Boardman closure, from 2008 to 2010, nobody had closed a coal plant," Jenks told Clearing Up. "We didn't have record low gas prices and an abundance of renewable energy. It was a groundbreaking agreement."

The 550-MW coal plant was Oregon's single largest emitter of carbon dioxide and could burn through 8,000 tons of coal a day.

"When we started talking about this, giving up baseload plants was a scary idea to power engineers," Jenks said. "Now, we don't think in terms of baseload plants and peakers. Look at utility [resource plans] today; it's about renewable energy and flexibility."

No single generating resource will replace the Boardman facility, PGE said in a prepared statement. The company is acquiring energy storage, new renewable resources, and new distributed resources like demand response to create a cleaner, more resilient power system for the future.

"Our customers are counting on us to deliver a clean energy future," PGE President and CEO Maria Pope said, in the statement. "PGE's Boardman closure is a major step on our path to meeting Oregon's greenhouse gas emissions reduction goals and transforming our system to reliably serve our customers with a cleaner, more sustainable energy mix."

The loss of Boardman leaves a hole in PGE's generating portfolio that the utility has been working to fill. An update to PGE's 2019 IRP showed a capacity need of about 250 MW beginning in 2021, increasing to about 270 MW in 2023 and reaching 697 MW as contracts begin expiring at the end of the action plan window in 2025.

In May, the utility signed a contract with Douglas County PUD for between 100 and 160 MW from the Wells hydropower project, which trimmed the 250 MW needed in 2021 to between 90 and 150 MW.

PGE expects to release a request for proposals for long-term, non-emitting capacity resources later this year to help fill its capacity needs.

Boardman is the second coal-fired power plant in the Northwest to close in 2020, and is part of an accelerating wave of such closures in the region. By the end of 2020, Northwest utilities are slated to close 2,288 MW of coal-fired generation.

Puget Sound Energy and Talen Energy permanently closed Colstrip units 1 and 2 (614 MW) in January, two years ahead of schedule.

TransAlta's 729-MW Centralia Unit 1 is scheduled to retire in December 2020, and PacifiCorp plans to retire its 395 MW Cholla Unit 4 in Arizona by the end of the year.

Idaho Power could be completely out of North Valmy coal-fired plant by the end of 2022 (see story).

In 2023, PacifiCorp expects to retire the 608 MW Jim Bridger Unit 1, with its Naughton units 1 and 2 (370 MW) closing in 2025. TransAlta's 729-MW Centralia Unit 2 is also slated to retire in 2025.

PacifiCorp has Jim Bridger Unit 2 (617 MW) slated to stop generating in 2028.

The loss of coal-fired generation in the Northwest is leaving many regional utilities exposed during winter and summer peaking events.

A study completed by consulting firm Energy and Environmental Economics in December 2019 said the Pacific Northwest could be facing a 3,000 MW capacity deficit by 2030 (CU No. 1933 [11]).

But the retirement of Oregon's only coal-fired power plant was a "significant milestone in the state's efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and help avoid the worst effects of climate change," said Richard Whitman, director of Oregon's Department of Environmental Quality, in a statement.

"The closure of the Boardman coal plant helps put the state on a path toward cleaner, safer air while we continue to development a climate-friendly sources of electricity," he added.

Editor - Clearing Up

Steve began covering energy policy and resource development in the Pacific Northwest in 1999. He’s been editor of Clearing Up since 2003, and has been a fellow at the Institute for Journalism and Natural Resource and University of Texas.