Oregon Aims to Set New Precedent for Clean Energy Leadership

February 11, 2016 | 2:14 pm
Jeff Deyette
Director of State Policy and Analysis

If Oregon’s utilities and clean energy advocates have their way, the state will soon be rapidly accelerating its transition toward a clean energy economy. This month, the Oregon legislature is considering HB 4036, a comprehensive plan crafted by a broad set of stakeholders that would double the state’s commitment to renewable energy, lock in cost-effective efficiency investments, and completely phase out the use of coal as an electricity source.

It’s an ambitious and achievable proposal that raises the bar in defining what it means to be a global clean energy and climate leader.

Phasing out coal power

Late last year, a group of stakeholders including environmental organizations, consumer advocates, and Oregon’s two largest utilities—PGE and Pacific Power—came together and agreed on a comprehensive policy package that will completely transform the state’s power supply over the next two decades. A foundational component of the agreement—known as the Clean Electricity and Coal Transition Plan—is the gradual elimination of all coal-fired electricity sold to Oregon consumers.

Currently, about one-third of the power delivered to homes and businesses in Oregon comes from coal-fired power plants, the vast majority of which are located out-of-state. The only coal-fired power plant within Oregon’s border—PGE’s Boardman Plant—is already scheduled for retirement in 2020. HB 4036 would require Pacific Power to stop importing electricity from their out-of-state coal-fired generating facilities by 2030. PGE would have an additional five years (if needed) to retire or stop receiving power from the coal generating units it currently owns at the Colstrip plant in Montana. Combined, these moves are projected to nearly cut in half the carbon emissions of the state’s two largest electric utilities.

This piece of the legislative proposal is by far the most precedent-setting. Many other state and federal policies have been implemented to reduce pollution from coal plants and shift power supplies toward cleaner alternatives, but none have explicitly required a coal phase out. And while this proposal won’t guarantee more coal plant retirements on its own, it does make their retirement more likely.

The loss of access to Oregon’s power market, along with increasing competition from cleaner alternatives and other state and federal policies to curb carbon pollution, will ratchet up the pressure to close additional coal generators throughout the region. Indeed, Oregon’s successful leadership on this front could spur other states to take similar actions and greatly accelerate the nation’s transition to a low-carbon power system.

Doubling down on renewable energy

One of the great advantages of Oregon’s proposed coal phase out is that creates room in the power supply for cleaner energy sources. The Clean Electricity and Coal Transition Plan helps fill that void by doubling Oregon’s existing renewable portfolio standard (RPS) from 25 percent by 2025 to 50 percent by 2040 (for PGE and Pacific Power only, Oregon’s other power providers remain on the existing target schedule).

A renewable portfolio standard (also often referred to as a renewable electricity standard, or RES) is a market-friendly policy that requires electricity providers to gradually increase the amount of wind, solar, and other renewable energy sources in their power supplies. Currently, 29 states and the District of Columbia have RPS policies in place. Oregon adopted its current RPS in 2007, and utilities in the state are on track to meet the standard at virtually no additional cost to consumers.

If adopted by the legislature, the Clean Electricity and Coal Transition Plan would double the size of Oregon’s existing RPS, and drive significant new wind and solar development. Photo: John Womack (littlejohn)

The RES has proven to be one of the most successful and cost-effective means of driving of new renewable energy development across the country, including in Oregon. A recent U.S. Department of Energy study also found that state-level RES policies are helping to substantially improve public health and the environment, create jobs, and protect consumers. That’s why most states with an RES have revisited and strengthened their targets over time.

A 50 percent RES in Oregon is an achievable target that would place the state among a select group of national renewable energy leaders that have recently adopted similar (or even stronger targets), including California, New York, Hawaii, and Vermont.

Avoiding an overreliance on natural gas

Beyond the coal phase out and stronger RES, there is even more to like in the Clean Electricity and Coal Transition package. For example, it increases access to community-based solar development, including for low-income Oregonians; reduces barriers to greater investments in electric vehicle infrastructure; and codifies into law the existing practice by utilities of developing cost-effective energy efficiency as a first resource.

What’s more, combining a coal phase out with a stronger renewable energy requirement wisely avoids having Oregon fall victim to an overreliance on natural gas. Many states are putting their electricity consumers at financial risk because of a large-scale switch to natural gas. The Clean Electricity and Coal Transition Plan helps Oregon bypass the misguided “natural gas as a bridge fuel” strategy, which will help protect consumers and achieve deeper carbon emission reductions more swiftly.

Raising the bar for clean energy leadership

Oregon has a long history of leading by example on environmental issues. With the Clean Electricity and Coal Transition Plan, the state is once again rising to the challenge with an innovative and achievable policy proposal that, if adopted, will drive down harmful carbon emissions, keep communities healthy, and spur economic growth.

Now that’s setting a new precedent for clean energy and climate leadership that other states should replicate!