In separate announcements from opposite ends of the country, the state of Washington and the Tennessee Valley Authority moved forward with plans to reduce, or eliminate altogether, their reliance on coal to produce energy.

The Washington state Senate passed a bill Saturday that would make the Evergreen State the first to be coal-free by 2025. Meanwhile, TVA officials unveiled a plan on March 2 proposing that the nation's largest public utility shift from coal to nuclear power, natural gas and renewable energy sources over the next 20 years.

Negotiations among the Washington state government, environmental groups and TransAlta Corp. culminated in Saturday's passage of SB 5769, which calls for TransAlta to phase out its 1,340 MW Big Hanaford coal plant in Centralia, WA. The Calgary-based company is to shut down the first of the facility's two boilers by 2020, the other by 2025. The bill now moves to the state House of Representatives.

"If this legislation passes through the House, it will allow for us to have expedited permitting to build a new, large-scale frame natural gas plant," TransAlta spokesperson Angela Mallow told NGI Tuesday. "We would start the permitting process and the design plans right away and hope to have the natural gas plant finished by 2020."

Mallow said the new plant would cost close to $1 billion, require fewer than 100 employees to operate and be built on property adjacent to the coal-fired facility, which would be decommissioned and returned to industrial land use. She said TransAlta was studying what capacity the new facility would have.

Mallow added that natural gas pipelines are already on-site to fuel a 248 MW natural gas turbine plant at Big Hanaford, which is currently used as a peaking plant. "There might be some upgrades that we need to do to the pipeline infrastructure, but we do have some already there," she said.

If enacted, SB 5769 commits the state to convincing federal authorities to declare the Centralia plant exempt from further greenhouse gas regulations, thereby saving TransAlta about $600 million in upgrades. The company will be allowed to sell coal power under long-term contracts while it spends $20 million to $30 million on upgrades designed to cut the plant's mercury emissions in half by 2012, and another $30 million to cut nitrogen oxides by 2013.

Mallow said the agreement would be void if the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) didn't agree to exempt the Centralia plant. In a related policy address on Tuesday, Exelon Corp. CEO John Rowe said no additional federal legislation is necessary to motivate power companies to transition to cleaner energy sources.

"Congress and the states, in well intended efforts to clean the electric generation fleet, have enacted and proposed bills that would burden consumers, cripple markets and increase the federal debt, while doing little for air quality and nothing for the nation's competitive position," Rowe said. "I'm asking that Congress do nothing."

TransAlta has also agreed to contribute $30 million into a community investment fund to help with energy efficiency projects, and put $25 million into an energy technology transition fund, which would promote clean power across Washington.

The company is no stranger to governments seeking to phase out coal. Last June the Canadian government announced a proposal for power companies to close any coal-fired facilities that are 45 years old or at the end of their power purchase arrangements, whichever is later. The proposal is currently under review but could become law in 2015.

"We see opportunities to replace our oldest coal plants with a mix of natural gas generation, clean coal technology and renewable energy," TransAlta CEO Steve Snyder said last June. "However, we need to also make sure this transition is done in a careful and orderly fashion to maintain the critical reliability of our electricity infrastructure. If we manage the transition of older coal units properly, we can increase the contribution of renewable energy, natural gas and clean coal technology to Canada's energy mix."

About 2,500 miles to the east, TVA officials said their recommended final integrated resource plan (IRP) -- the utility's first since 1995 -- was formulated after two years of public hearings and meetings with customers, environmentalists, and business and political leaders. The plan was filed with the EPA on March 2 and will be presented to the utility's board of directors on April 14 in Chattanooga, TN.

Under the proposal, Knoxville, TN-based TVA would idle between 2,400 and 4,700 MW of coal-fired capacity by 2017. Natural gas and nuclear power would fill most of that void, with natural gas providing up to 9,300 MW and nuclear sources adding another 5,900 MW by 2029.

TVA currently operates 29 hydroelectric dams, 11 coal-fired power plants, 11 natural gas-powered facilities and three nuclear power plants that combined produce about 34,000 MW. The utility supplies power to about nine million people in seven states.

TVA is building an 880 MW combined-cycle natural gas-fired power plant adjacent to the coal-fired John Sevier Fossil Plant near Rogersville, TN. TVA spokesman Scott Brooks told NGI Tuesday that the natural gas facility would be online by mid-2012.

Brooks said the utility hadn't finalized any new sites for natural gas-powered facilities.

"We're looking at certain locations around the [Tennessee River] Valley that could [host a natural gas facility], depending on what we decide to do with our coal fleet," Brooks said. "We're looking at each of our 11 [coal-fired] plants -- specifically the ones that don't have the scrubbers and the emission controls -- to see which of these is worth investing the money into putting in the controls, and which we would be better off just idling and putting in gas or making it up with nuclear that's coming online."

©Copyright 2011 Intelligence Press Inc. All rights reserved. The preceding news report may not be republished or redistributed, in whole or in part, in any form, without prior written consent of Intelligence Press, Inc.