As the old saw goes, when one door closes another one opens. That is about to tested on a grand scale in the State of Washington, which recently announced an agreement to shut down its only coal fired power plant. The plant is owned by the power company TransAlta. Rather than simply switching off the plant’s two coal boilers, the plan calls for TransAlta to embark on a comprehensive economic development program that will create new business opportunities and new jobs in high tech fields, while helping its current coal plant workers transition their skills into new employment. It sounds too good to be true but there is mounting evidence that the transition from fossil fuels to future energy will be an economic engine, not the “job-killing” disaster that some are predicting. That in turn could position companies like TransAlta for future growth fueled partly by solid and supportive community relations.
TransAlta and Future Energy
TransAlta has been around since 1909, so it’s a good example of a traditional power company that is beginning to make the switch to more sustainable feedstocks. If the aim is to provide power to customers while maximizing returns for investors, there is no rationale for clinging to outmoded feedstocks that are becoming more risky, unstable and expensive. Public policies have artificially driven down the cost of fossil fuels, including taxpayer subsidies and a relatively free ride on the cost of public health impacts. As public support for safer and healthier forms of energy rises, renewable energy promises less risk and greater stability for power companies. For that matter, even traditional fossil fuel producers such as Chevron are expanding into renewable energy production (oil companies have used solar energy for many years, as an economical way to power remote oil facilities – but that’s another story!).
The Transition from Coal to Renewable Energy
Washington State’s plan calls for TransAlta to shut down the two coal boilers at its Centralia plant by 2025. In the mean time, the company is to install interim emissions controls. More to the point, TransAlta will contribute $30 million to a community investment fund for energy efficiency projects, and another $25 million to an “energy technology transition fund.” The first fund in particular will create new employment opportunities in traditional skilled trades, many of which could be filled by TransAlta’s current plant workers. The second fund is geared more toward building opportunities in entrepreneurial fields and high value research careers.
Renewable Energy and New Green Jobs
The TransAlta coal transition plan is designed to help current workers stay employed, as well as to create new employment in Washington State. Will it work? So far, studies are pointing in the right direction. In California, for example, renewable energy is creating growth in traditional skilled employment as well as in new high tech fields. The University of Massachusetts-Amherst also recently predicted that that a pair of pending EPA rules would create 1.5 million new green jobs over the next five years related to the manufacture, installation and operation of new air pollution controls, in addition to the production of alternative energy.
More communities are beginning to realize the benefits of clean energy investment, but Washington could be the first instance of an entire state making a clean, calculated break with at least one form of fossil fuel. It could become a national model for opening new business opportunities, by translating the public will into a legislative framework that focuses private investment on promoting the general welfare far into the future.
Image: Coal by LHOON on flickr.com.