Last week, Oregon’s two major utilities – PacifiCorp and Portland General Electric (PGE) – came to a seemingly game-changing agreement with some environmental advocates to support a bill that would almost completely eliminate coal from the state’s electric grid while increasing the amount of renewable power. The proposed bill has some laudable goals, but as more details emerge I think renewable energy advocates and environmentalists should carefully consider where this proposal will leave us in twenty-five years, and question whether it will actually move us beyond our current business-as-usual projections.
There are essentially two major pieces of the bill that utilities agreed to support last week. First, the bill would require PacifiCorp and PGE to phase out coal by 2030. Considering Oregon currently gets around a third of its electricity from coal, phasing out coal is critically important to reducing the state’s consumption-based emissions. Second, the bill would expand Oregon’s existing renewable portfolio standard (RPS) from 25% renewables by 2025 to 50% renewables by 2040.
There is no question in my mind that getting Oregon off of coal and increasing its renewable portfolio standard are vital steps towards reducing our state’s carbon footprint. Nevertheless, without further information on the details of the bill (a draft has not yet been released), I have several preliminary concerns about the deal as it’s been reported.
1. The compromise bill does not ramp up the RPS quickly enough, and would allow natural gas to establish an unacceptable foothold in Oregon.
Oregon is currently on track to meet its existing RPS, so extending and expanding this standard are important steps towards transitioning the state to a 100% renewable power grid. But a 50% by 2040 goal isn’t nearly ambitious enough to achieve Oregon’s greenhouse gas emissions goals. As Oregon transitions away from coal, natural gas plants will likely serve as the so-called “bridge fuel” in the state. But building more natural gas infrastructure is likely to lead to long-term reliance on fossil fuels, and not a bridge to more renewables (see Amelia Schlusser’s blog post from this summer for more detail on the fiction of natural gas as a bridge to more renewables). Moreover, with the specter of California’s current massive natural gas leak looming, there is a chance that such a leak in Oregon would offset much or all of the state’s efforts to reduce emissions in the first place. Requiring a phase-out of coal while setting the RPS so low only encourages more natural gas development in Oregon, and could give natural gas a long-term foothold in the state.
2. Oregon’s transition away from coal is already inevitable.
Although Oregon does still get an alarming amount of its electricity from coal, the phase-out of this carbon-intensive fuel is already inevitable under existing laws and agreements. A 2009 law effectively prohibits construction of new coal-fired power plants in Oregon and prohibits utilities from entering into long-term power purchase agreements for output from out-
coal-fired power plants. Meanwhile, Oregon’s only existing coal-fired power
plant in Boardman is already set to be retired by 2020. And according to OPB, many of PacifiCorp’s coal-fired power plants located outside of
Oregon are projected to reach the ends of their useful lives within the next
fifteen years. Finally, compliance with the Clean Power Plan will likely
require a transition away from coal throughout the west by 2030, even without
this bill. Thus, a state bill with a coal phase-out provision is likely unnecessary
to achieve the important goal of transitioning Oregon off of coal.
3. The proposed bill represents a continuation of Oregon’s piecemeal approach to climate policy.
As we detailed in our Countdown to 2050: Sharpening Oregon’s Climate Action Tools report, Oregon has a history of doling out climate policy in a piecemeal fashion. Instead of enacting a law with clear emission reduction mandates and a comprehensive and holistic approach to achieving them, Oregon has created a series of tenuously connected laws aimed at reducing emissions from a limited subset of sources and sectors without taking account of how the laws and implementing agencies might work together to reduce emissions from all sectors. While this proposed bill will undoubtedly achieve some additional emissions reductions and should encourage more renewable energy development in Oregon, it is yet another example of Oregon’s piecemeal approach to addressing climate change.
To be sure, any action to address climate change and advance renewable energy is better than inaction. Further, it may be that the devil is in the details with this bill, and that the draft that ultimately goes to the legislature will contain some provisions that alleviate some of my concerns. But, as our Countdown to 2050 report shows, Oregon can and should be doing much more to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and increase renewable energy generation. The proposed bill is a step in the right direction, but renewable energy supporters should also be wary of committing to piecemeal compromises at the expense of long-term policy shifts. By spending political capital on passing this bill, we may reduce our chances of enacting what the state really needs: comprehensive climate change legislation that includes enforceable greenhouse gas emission mandates.