TransAlta Retires One of Two Coal-Burning Units

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The TransAlta coal-powered plant outside Centralia shut down one of two coal-burning units on the last day of 2020. 

Along with the shutdown of “Unit 1” comes the layoffs of 64 TransAlta employees, which were reported to the state Department of Employment Security in early November. The job eliminations began on Jan. 4 and are expected to conclude by the end of July, according to TransAlta.

“In the last 20 years, our team at Centralia has worked over 9,241,404 person-hours, contributing to TransAlta’s success and to providing low-cost and reliable electricity to energize communities,” TransAlta USA posted on its Facebook page to mark the shutdown.

Coal-burning “Unit 1” came online in 1971 and has since provided over 179,000,000 megawatts of generated power. 

Of the 64 laid-off positions, 38 were union positions accounting for several types of jobs at the power-generating company, including maintenance, operations and support functions, according to Lori Schmitt, senior advisor and U.S. stakeholder relations and communications with TransAlta. After all 64 employees are laid off at the end of July, there will be about 115 employees left to operate the second coal-burning unit until that too is retired in 2025.

“It’s a tough transition because TransAlta has been a really good employer that pays really good wages and benefits and trying to replicate that is difficult,” said former Lewis County Commissioner Edna Fund in early November. “We knew it was coming but it doesn’t make it any easier when it’s affecting families.”

In order to ease the transitions, the Centralia Coal Transition Board allocated $8 million from the Economic Development Council (EDC) to support the displaced workers — paying each former employee about $44,700. The same one-time lump sum payment will occur for the employees who will be laid off in 2025. Schmitt said that 39 of the 64 employees volunteered to be laid off and 37 are eligible for retirement. 

“Thank you to all past and present employees and contractors for your relentless efforts and for always stepping up no matter the challenge,” TransAlta posted. “Cheers to the Centralia team for a great run.”

The shutdown of these units was established and agreed upon by TransAlta and Washington state nearly a decade ago. In April of 2011, then-governor Chris Gregoire, TransAlta executives and members of the environmental and labor communities signed legislation to transition the state off of combustible coal power.

TransAlta has expressed a desire to transition one of the coal-burning units to natural gas in order to keep the Centralia location operational, but the possibility of that happening is uncertain at this point.

“We continue to stay engaged with the state and other stakeholders to see how TransAlta can support the new clean-energy goals while maintaining the spirit of the 2011 agreement and looking for opportunities to remain in the community,” Schmitt said.

TransAlta Centralia Board Funding, LLC, often referred to as the “Centralia Coal Transition Grants,” will make its last annual payment on Dec. 31, 2023. The funding board awards grants to businesses and local organizations to improve energy efficiency, economic development and energy technology. The funding board will continue to invest in projects until the fund balance has been exhausted.

TransAlta is a customer of the Lewis County Public Utility District as the PUD provides TransAlta with electricity for its operation. Willie Painter, public affairs manager with the PUD, said they have been working closely with TransAlta to understand the impacts of the phased shutdown of the coal-burning units, and the PUD doesn’t anticipate there will be a significant impact on their budget.

Lee Childs with Pacific Mountain WorkForce Development Council (PACMTN) will continue working with the laid-off TransAlta employees, providing them with information to participate in a “Life After Layoff” presentation and other workshops and connecting them with other resources.

Although TransAlta is working to create a smooth transition for former employees, the COVID-19 pandemic has made job hunting more difficult than it has been in the past, Childs said, as WorkSource and PACMTN’s services and workshops are all virtual. 

“It’s very challenging for folks to find work these days, especially if they have any sort of barrier — language, disability, lack of resources to have the technology, if they are rural then they may not have internet access. The barriers really show themselves in this kind of situation,” Childs said.

Childs said that large layoffs, such as the 64 TransAlta employees, only happens one or two times a year in the PACMTN region, which covers Lewis, Mason, Pacific, Thurston and Grays Harbor counties. 

“Normally, people would start jumping out and looking for work right away, but the pandemic has a lot of folks afraid to move anywhere else and expose themself to the virus,” Childs said. “I think human nature is that (former TransAlta employees) would want to stay in Lewis County … but it’s such a large group and it’s such a specialized occupation.”

Childs said that retraining could be used to help former TransAlta employees stay in Lewis County — adjusting their skill set to jobs that are available locally. Those impacted by the TransAlta layoffs can reach out to Childs for assistance at leec@pacmtn.org.