Is Oregon about to kick its coal power habit? Even though the state has an ambitious renewable portfolio standard in place, ranks second in the United States for hydropower generation, and is a signatory to the landmark Pacific Coast Action Plan on Climate and Energy, it still receives a surprising 33 percent of its overall electricity from coal – mostly from out-of-state sources. A pair of bills wending their way through the state legislature could move Oregon even further toward a sustainable energy future by completely banning coal-fired electricity. If enacted, the “Coal to Clean Energy” legislation would prohibit utilities from delivering coal power to customers, replacing that supply with electricity from local sources 90 percent cleaner than coal generation.
Oregon’s Power Isn’t As Green As You May Think
The two pieces of legislation, Senate bill 477 and House Bill 2729, mandate Oregon’s investor-owned utilities (IOUs) remove any coal power from their supplies by 2025. Considering the state’s 25 by 2025 renewables goal and pro-environment policies, this seems like a no-brainer at first blush. But the devil, as they say, is in the details. In-state coal generation is almost non-existent, limited to just the Boardman coal plant, which is scheduled for early retirement in 2020. However Oregon is part of the Northwest Power Pool, which includes all or part of seven states across the region, and a good deal of the electricity flowing to residents come from coal-dependent states like Montana, Utah, and Wyoming.
The actual percentage of coal-fired generation powering Oregon may come as a surprise to residents. Much of the two largest state utilities’ total electricity mix comes from coal: 30 percent for Portland General Electric and 67 percent for Pacific Power. These utilities source portions of their supply from out-of-state generation, compared to local consumer-owned utilities, which boast an 85 percent hydropower supply.
In-State Renewables Or Out-Of-State Coal?
This in-state versus out-of-state power supply difference forms the crux of both opponent and proponent arguments over the legislation. The state’s IOUs say cutting out coal would hike power bills with no real emissions reduction because it would require new in-state renewables paid for by Oregonians without shutting down out-of-state coal generation. “It could potentially be a very expensive way to not get much environmental benefit,” said Scott Bolton of PacifiCorp in an interview with Seattle radio station KUOW. “At this point, it seems there are much more cost-effective ways to transition energy resources than just giving a deadline for using coal resources.”
But that may be a moot point for utility customers, according to recent polling. 71 percent of Oregon voters support the legislation overall, with 58 percent still supporting the proposal even if it increases their utility bills.
For supporters, the requirement for replacement power to come from in-state renewables means cleaner energy and economic growth. “Replacement power resources like solar and wind will add to local job growth in the region rather than elsewhere,” blogged Amy Baird of Renewable Northwest.
Baird cites the $9 billion in local investment created by Oregon’s existing 3.3 gigawatts (GW) of renewable energy as proof of clean energy’s economic impact, and highlights over 1GW additional renewables permitted and ready to build as proof the lights will stay on without coal. If passed, the legislation could also create up to 2,000 new jobs, estimated a University of Portland researcher. This clean economic message resonates with residents. The same poll showing overall support for the legislation also revealed 88 percent of voters support the proposal’s preference for in-state renewables to promote job growth, and voters said they’d be more likely to support a candidate who supports the legislation in upcoming elections by a three-to-one margin.
Can Political And Technical Hurdles Slow A Sustainable Shift?
While the proposal’s prospects are positive overall, former Governor John Kitzhaber’s recent resignation over ethics violations related to his finance’s clean energy advocacy work have fueled conservative claims the state is providing unfair advantages to climate-friendly policies. Kitzhaber’s replacement former Secretary of State Kate Brown, has a lifetime voting score of 87 from the League of Conservation voters and voted for the state’s 25 by 2025 renewable goal, but has so far demurred comment on specific policy issues. Still, the state legislature moved solidly into Democratic control during the 2014 elections so politically speaking, the coast seems clear.
It’s also unclear how exactly the legislation would prevent coal-fired electrons from reaching Oregon utility customers. There’s no way to guarantee any one electron generated across a grid system reaches any one customer, and Oregon won’t be able to island itself from other states, but this may be addressed by the provision the state’s public utility commission will work with utilities to carry out the transition.
Still, it’s hard to dispute the fact our energy system needs to transition away from coal, and Oregon’s effort could be a blueprint for other states. 14 of the 15 hottest years on record have come since 2000, and Oregon is already feeling impacts from diminished seafood supplies to rising sea levels and drought. Seen through that lens, quitting coal could be an unbelievable bargain.