What would a carbon-free environment mean for Centralia and its surrounding communities?
Cody Duncan, a business developer for TransAlta Corporation’s locally-based power plant, tackled the issue during an hour-long presentation last Friday at Centralia College’s Walton Science Center, as he discussed the conglomerate’s mandate to cease coal-fired operations by the end of 2025 and the possibility of converting the Big Hanaford Road facility into a solar thermal energy site.
Duncan visited Centralia College Friday as part of the Rising Tide Science Seminar Series.
Duncan noted the 2011 TransAlta Energy Transition Bill that saw the energy firm collaborate with The Governor’s Office, environmental groups and the community by promising to shut down its first boiler in 2020 and its second one in 2025 in an effort to transition to cleaner fuels.
“We feel that based on some studies that we’ve seen, when we come off of coal at the end of 2025, there could be a transition period (an estimated 15 to 20 years) where we have to get some firm (see dependable) power,” explained Duncan, a lifelong Lewis County resident, as he detailed his company’s ongoing commitment to maintain a stable power grid.
TransAlta’s forthcoming plans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions are also part of the state’s commitment to produce clean energy endorsed by Gov. Jay Inslee in May, when he signed a law requiring that 100-percent of Washington’s electricity emanate from clean energy sources by 2045.
“Studies maybe show that Centralia isn’t needed beyond 2025. But if there is (a demand) based on the power that’s needed to bridge the gap to renewables, then why shouldn’t it be Centralia?” Duncan stated while mentioning that TransAlta is actively seeking a customer to launch a solar project on its property.
He argued: “We’re located next to power lines. We feel there’s an opportunity. It’s a little more sunny on the other side of the state, but we’re still hoping to do a solar (initiative). It’s clean power for the grid. We have the land to do it on.”
During his appearance, Duncan — who was first employed by TransAlta in 2004 as a coal miner — recounted his recent trip to a technology conference in Portland, where corporate reps from Microsoft and other firms confirmed the increased demand for energy to add more recharging stations for new vehicle models.
Duncan shared his belief that TransAlta may be a “nice fit” for the added load discussed at the event.
“It’s already there. There is a cost for the infrastructure to convert it, to change it. It’s not like it’s a greenfield site. We have all the transmission there,” he added.
The crowd of students and assorted guests were also made privy to a contract signed by TransAlta to purchase a 49-percent interest in the Skookumchuck Wind Energy Project this past May. Duncan described the facility as approximately 19,500 acres of land across Lewis County that will produce 136.8 megawatts of energy once its completed sometime during the tail end of 2019.
After offering the audience a tutorial on how renewable energy methods work, including hydropower, geothermal, et. al., that typically employ turbines spun by a variant of energy force, Duncan introduced solar as a different type of process.
He conveyed how panels take on sunlight and how DC power is converted to AC power, with the end result being electron movement that creates energy.
A concern in successfully adopting solar, Duncan continued, is not in the generation of energy, but in its storage.
“Everybody talks about batteries as being the answer. I firmly believe they’re a big part of the answer, but you have to have the excess power to charge the battery. So, this is my fear when the coal power goes away, not only in Centralia, but all across the Pacific Northwest,” Duncan said. “Where you usually run into trouble and issues having enough power to keep the lights on is when you have steady periods of cold, cold spells with no wind.”
And while the batteries could fill the gap over a day of adverse weather conditions, it was noted, there’s no clarity on whether those same batteries could sustain power over the course of two to three days.