Bainbridge councilwoman presses PSE to phase out coal

Councilwoman Kirsten Hytopoulos joins other Washington cities and asks PSE to move away from using coal-based energy.

Bainbridge Island may just have an environmental champion in Councilwoman Kirsten Hytopoulos.

She has previously been known as the islander who launched a campaign, and authored legislation, that banned plastic bags on Bainbridge Island. Now Hytopoulos is shining a spotlight on Puget Sound Energy and its energy mix.

If that spotlight is powered in Washington, it is likely drawing 30 percent of its electricity from coal. And that is what Hytopoulos wants to address.

“Continuing to burn coal and rely upon coal for energy is inconsistent with our values (on Bainbridge Island),” Hytopoulos said.

Hytopoulos asked her fellow council members Wednesday for permission to author a letter to Puget Sound Energy and send it as a representative of the city council.

She was given a unanimous affirmation to move ahead.

The letter asks the energy company — a utility that provides electricity to more than 1.4 million homes in Washington — to take another look at its intentions to use coal for electricity over the next 20 years.

The councilwoman’s initial draft noted the dangers of coal to human health and the environment as well as its contribution to climate change. Hytopoulos said that the environmental costs combined with current and looming lawsuits against Montana’s coal-burning Colstrip Power Plant — where PSE is the largest owner — can result in higher costs for coal-produced power. Customers may be the bearers of that financial burden.

“I’m writing as a council person representing a community known for our commitment to environmental protection and sustainable living,” Hytopoulos said. “That’s the bottom line. I am confident that is what our community is about.”

“Not phasing out of coal is not consistent with our values,” she added.

Hytopoulos is following on the heels of other Washington communities that have also urged PSE to forgo its use of coal to produce energy.

King County — along with the cities of Issaquah, Kirkland, Redmond, Renton and Snoqualmie — sent a letter to PSE on July 30 to comment on the company’s most recent Integrated Resource Plan, an overview of the company’s plans for power production.

The county and cities noted that they are home to a considerable population of PSE customers, as well as being customers themselves. The letter asked the power company to make greater strides toward coal-free power and renewable, safer forms of energy. The letter states that the county and cities will support legislation to make energy efficiency and renewable energy investments more profitable and achievable for the company.

“We believe PSE’s submitted (Integrated Resource Plan) should more fully incorporate environmental, public health, and financial impacts and risks of continued reliance on coal-produced electricity, most notably at Colstrip, where PSE is the largest owner,” the letter said.

PSE admits in its Integrated Resource Plan that the future of coal power is uncertain.

PSE also states, however, that the Colstrip plant reduces costs.

“Colstrip saves PSE customers about $131 million per year,” the plan states. “Put a different way, replacing Colstrip with another resource would result in approximately a 5 percent annual rate increase, apart from any other rate pressures.”

Colstrip, Montana is home to a massive power plant that burns coal to produce electricity for companies such as PSE, but the plant has become known for multiple environmental lawsuits against its owners. It was recently forced to shut down one of its units due to damage from wear that will cost approximately $30 million to repair.

Colstrip is the largest producer of greenhouse gases west of the Mississippi, according to Coal Free PSE, an activist group supported by the Sierra Club.

PSE previously paid a settlement of $25 million for groundwater that the power plant polluted.

Coal Free PSE claims two more state-based lawsuits may also be on their way for environmental contamination from coal ash.