By 2025, the TransAlta energy facility in Centralia must replace coal with natural gas to generate electricity, but Washington has no gas to offer. Fortunately, we have neighbors with an abundance of gas — natural gas, that is — to ship to us.
In Washington, three-quarters of our electricity comes from hydropower. But 14 percent of it comes from coal burned at the TransAlta facility, which employs 600 people in good family-wage jobs and provides heat and light for 1.23 million homes. We must replace that coal with another type of fuel, and the energy source of choice these days is natural gas.
Natural gas already plays a major role in serving homes, hospitals, schools and retail centers in Washington. Bellevue-based Puget Sound Energy serves nearly 750,000 natural gas customers in parts of Snohomish, King, Pierce, Lewis, Thurston and Kittitas counties. On the east side of our state, Spokane-based Avista serves nearly 147,000 natural gas customers.
As our population continues to grow from an estimated 6.5 million today to 8.2 million in 2025, Washington will need more natural gas and electricity, but from where?
The Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission reports that currently half of our natural gas supply comes from British Columbia and Alberta; the remainder comes from Rocky Mountain production sites, primarily in Wyoming. Our state will rely on those suppliers and may also see an infusion of natural gas from Alaska’s North Slope and possibly from liquid natural gas if a suitable port and an accompanying pipeline receive permits.
As electric utilities across the country face eliminating coal while meeting growing energy needs, the demand for natural gas around the nation will continue to rise.
Coal, which accounts for nearly half the power production in our nation, is considered a “dirty” fuel because of the greenhouse gases, sulfur and mercury emitted during burning. Even though TransAlta has significantly reduced its emissions, the Legislature bowed to public pressure and decided to accelerate the conversion to natural gas.
While most view natural gas as a desirable environmental alternative, much of what is called “conventional” gas is drying up. Conventional gas is where producers drill wells and tap gas pockets or formations where it flows freely to the surface.
A new wave of “unconventional” gas is filling the void. Newer horizontal deep drilling is opening up deposits which can be 10,000 feet or more beneath the surface.
This gas is in shale basins that must be fractured or broken apart and injected with water and chemicals so the gas can flow to surface. While none of those shale formations are located in our state, they are prevalent in northwest Canada and in massive formations that run diagonally from Texas to upper New York state and on into eastern Canada.
Last month, London’s online version of the Guardian newspaper reported that, in the next 10 years, the U.S. will use fracturing technology or “fracking,” which President Obama favors, to drill hundreds of thousands of wells in cities, rivers and watersheds. Both drilling and fracking are fast expanding across Europe, South Africa and Russia, as well.
But local resistance to the increased drilling is beginning to surface in upper New York, Pennsylvania and in Quebec. The rub is the sight of drilling rigs, chemicals used in the fracking process and potential groundwater contamination.
However, what may be even more troubling is scientists are learning that the new natural gas may emit equivalent levels of greenhouse gases as burning coal. Gas conversion may not be the win-win lawmakers trumpeted.
So, while it is good to have neighbors blessed with abundant gas, our elected officials must understand that there is no panacea. All fuel sources, whether natural gas, solar, nuclear, crude oil, wind power, hydro, geo-thermal and even coal, have their good and bad points.
Don Brunell is the president of the Association of Washington Business.