Workers reflect on Oregon’s first and last coal plant
“The people here made the plant. What we did is something that was needed.”
To reach the top of the coal-fired power plant outside Boardman, Oregon, one must first ascend 19 floors in an elevator, then climb a couple of sets of stairs, all the while passing a labyrinth of heavy metal machines and metal catwalks. These various — and, to the untrained eye, mysterious — machines work together to spin a turbine that converts heat into electricity. From the roof, the plant’s smokestack rises even higher above a barren coal yard that was once filled with piles of coal from the Powder River Basin of Wyoming. After four decades as one of Oregon’s top power producers — and the state’s number-one point-source of carbon dioxide emissions — the Boardman plant closed in October 2020. But glimpses of the present and future of energy production are visible next door and on the horizon.
Within a couple hundred yards of the coal facility, a puff of exhaust rises from a natural gas power plant. Over the last decade, natural gas has supplanted coal as the top source of electricity generation in the United States. Now, wind turbines can be seen dotting fields of sagebrush or grain in every direction from the top of the coal plant. On a recent morning, Brandon Hendricks, the plant’s operations manager, pointed to a low hill in the distance, where the Wheatridge Renewable Energy Facility — which combines solar, wind and battery storage — is under construction. In 2019, renewable sources produced more energy than coal in the U.S. for the first time in recent history.
Every power source comes with costs and benefits to workers, nearby communities and the environment. Ten years ago, Portland General Electric, Boardman’s owner, in response to Clean Air Act lawsuits from environmental groups, agreed that the cost of coal power was too high. Since then, the plant has been slowly winding down operations. Repairs were skipped, jobs were slowly phased out as less maintenance work was done, and the utility company began offering its employees career training and assignments at other plants.
Now, crews are taking the plant apart. The first task is to make the giant machine, housed in a metal-sided building, “cold, dark and dry,” as the plant manager put it, so demolition crews can come in and level the rest. Wires are being cut. Some parts may be cleaned and sent to other plants. In mid-December, High Country News visited Boardman to talk with some of the people who ran the plant about the work they’ve done powering the region, the changes in the energy industry and the hole the closing is leaving in their careers.