Ore. passes bill to boost renewables, exit from coal

By Debra Kahn | 03/03/2016 08:41 AM EST

Oregon lawmakers yesterday approved a bill to raise the state’s share of renewable energy to 50 percent and quit its reliance on coal-fired power.

Oregon lawmakers yesterday approved a bill to raise the state’s share of renewable energy to 50 percent and quit its reliance on coal-fired power.

S.B. 1547, sponsored by state Sen. Lee Beyer (D), passed the state Senate 17-12 on a party line vote. It now heads to Gov. Kate Brown (D), who is expected to sign it. It passed the state House 38-20 on Tuesday.

Originally put forth by the state’s two largest utilities and a cadre of environmental groups, the bill would instruct the utilities — Pacific Power and Portland General Electric — to exit their out-of-state coal contracts by 2030. It would also raise the state’s renewable portfolio standard to 50 percent by 2040 from the current target of 25 percent by 2025.


The bill would make Oregon’s relatively green electricity mix even greener. The state got nearly three-quarters of its electricity from hydropower and other renewables in 2014, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, and its only in-state coal-fired power plant, Boardman, is scheduled to close by the end of 2020.

Environmental groups hailed the bill as the most significant climate action in the United States since the U.N. climate talks in Paris in December.

"Oregon’s transition to a low-carbon power system will benefit the economy and the environment and should serve as a model for other states to follow," said Adrienne Alvord, the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Western states director.

"The Oregon Legislature’s decision to phase out coal power is a huge step toward a clean energy future and puts the state at the forefront of climate leadership," she said.

GOP lawmakers raise cost concerns

On its way to floor votes, the bill vaulted past objections from Republican lawmakers and the state’s Public Utility Commission that it was too prescriptively worded and could raise costs for electric customers. Critics also said that without cooperation from neighboring states that are home to the coal plants, utilities won’t be able to reduce carbon emissions by exiting their contracts (ClimateWire, Feb. 26).

To address the PUC’s concerns, lawmakers amended the bill in recent days to instruct the agency to approve "prudent" utility costs associated with renewable generation. Beyer said that even without U.S. EPA’s pending carbon rule for power plants, the Clean Power Plan, coal-fired power is fast becoming uneconomical.

"Those are old, old plants," he said of Pacific Power’s facilities. "How much investment should our ratepayers make in keeping those going forward with the uncertainty about if they’ll be able to continue to exist?"

Republicans argued that the bill would raise costs by allowing utilities to spend indiscriminately on renewables. Pacific Power had projected that it would raise costs through 2030 by less than 1 percent per year, while reducing carbon dioxide emissions by 35 million tons through 2040 relative to business-as-usual levels.

"You can see the undercurrent of how we got here," said state Sen. Alan Olsen (R), pointing out that the state’s ratepayer advocacy organization, the Citizens’ Utility Board, is chaired by an employee of Iberdrola Renewables, which in turn was formerly a subsidiary of PacifiCorp, Pacific Power’s parent company. "Where were the ratepayers in this process?"

"This is a solid win for Oregon ratepayers," said CUB Executive Director Bob Jenks. "The risk of high-cost coal is gone, and low-risk, low-cost clean energy will increase. Our wallets and our values have been protected."

Montanan: Ore. bill ‘ignorant’

Oregon’s move is part of an anti-coal trend in the Pacific Northwest that nearby states have been watching with trepidation.

A bill currently in Washington’s Legislature sponsored by the state’s largest utility, Puget Sound Energy, would allow the company to create and access a fund to decommission the Colstrip coal-fired power plant in Montana and conduct remediation work after Dec. 31, 2022 (ClimateWire, Feb. 12).

James Atchison, executive director of the Southeastern Montana Development Corp. in Colstrip, Mont., described both the legislation in Washington and Oregon as "a little ignorant" and questioned the states’ ability to replace the energy coming from the town’s 2094-megawatt coal plant.

Lifelong Colstrip resident Ashley Dennehy, 24, whose husband works at the mine that feeds the Colstrip Generating Station and whose father works at the plant, recently started a group called Colstrip United to raise awareness about the town’s future.

She said she believes Washington and Oregon "are going to be direct victims" of rising energy prices if coal plants like the one in her small town get shut down.

Dennehy said she started the group to combat "outside misinformation and lack of education" about the coal industry and feels cut out of the dialogue taking place in the Washington and Oregon legislatures.

"It’s troubling that we weren’t given a fair shot at it," Dennehy said.

Reporter Elizabeth Harball contributed from Colstrip, Mont.