When Jessica Vega Pederson thinks about Portland, Oregon’s recent commitment to transitioning to 100 percent clean energy, she doesn’t so much think about the June 1 vote (it was unanimous) or the praise from Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler (it was effusive). She thinks about what happened the next day.
“Passing the resolution is just the first step,” Vega Pederson, a commissioner for Multnomah County, which voted at the same time as Portland to transition to 100 percent clean energy by 2050, told ThinkProgress. “The hardest work is happening the next day.”
Over the past few years — and especially in the past few months, fueled by the Trump administration’s aggressive agenda of climate denial — transitioning to 100 percent renewable energy has become a zeitgeist for local communities looking to forge ahead with progressive climate policy. In the last year alone, more than 25 cities have committed to transitioning some or all of their energy mix to completely renewable sources — a complex goal that, like Pederson suggests, is often easier said than done.
But in Portland, environmentalists and city leaders are already pointing to concrete results sparked, at least in part, by the city’s commitment to renewable energy. On August 8, the Oregon Public Utility Commission rejected a proposal by the one of the state’s largest utilities to potentially expand natural-gas fired power stations in the eastern part of the state — and opponents of the plan argue that the decision was, at least in part, influenced by the city’s new commitment to a clean energy future.
“Portland’s and Multnomah County’s resolutions are not only powerful and influential statements of community values; they also lead to concrete outcomes,” David Van’t Hof, acting Oregon director of Climate Solutions, told ThinkProgress in an email. “The city and county resolutions elevated elected officials’ positions against the utility’s proposal to expand fracked gas, adding important voices to the groundswell of public opposition. These actions helped the Oregon Public Utility Commission reject the fracked gas proposal and increase their support for more renewable energy.”
Portland General Electric’s (PGE) plans for the natural gas expansion first began in the fall of 2016. The proposal was developed largely in response to another progressive climate bill passed by the Oregon state legislature earlier that year, which required the state to double its renewable energy mandate and eliminate coal from its energy mix by 2030. For PGE, phasing coal out of its energy mix meant shutting down the Boardman Coal Plant, a 550-megawatt plant that supplied about 15 percent of the utility’s electricity as of 2009. In 2010, the utility agreed to close the plant in 2020, primarily because the cost of updating it to comply with state and federal air standards would have totaled close to $500 million.
As part of its integrated resource planning program — long-term forecasts that Oregon law requires utilities to produce every two years — the utility estimated that, by 2021, it would be facing a power shortage of 800 megawatts (roughly enough to power 800,000 homes) of dispatchable power, largely due to the closure of the coal plant. So to make up for lost capacity from the closure of the Boardman Plant, PGE began the permitting process for potentially siting new or expanded natural gas facilities near the Boardman Plant.
But almost instantly that proposal was met with considerable criticism from environmental groups and elected officials throughout the Portland area. At the time, Portland was fresh off passing one of the most progressive climate laws in the country, amending the zoning code to prohibit new or expanded fossil fuel terminals within the city limits, and activists were eagerly eyeing their next prize: a commitment at the city, and county, level to ensuring a transition to 100 percent renewable energy.
“We got a lot of push-back from stakeholders and customers on the proposal of even considering natural gas resources,” Steven Corson, a spokesperson with PGE, told ThinkProgress.
Some of the most high-profile resistance came from Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler and Mulnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury, who urged both the city and the county to begin moving away from fossil fuels entirely. Wheeler, for his part, told the Portland Tribune that he had lobbied PGE to stop considering natural gas as a viable alternative to the Boardman coal plant.
The city and county had originally planned a vote on the 100 percent renewable commitment for late April, though the vote ended up being pushed to June 1 — the same day President Donald Trump officially announced his intention to pull the United States out of the Paris climate agreement. But during the months between the originally scheduled vote and the final vote, PGE decided to suspend its plan for potentially expanding its natural gas capacity; the utility elected instead to try to find existing resources, through bilateral negotiations with other facilities, that could fill its forecasted gap in power.
And last week, the Oregon Public Utilities Commission issued a decision tantamount to a nail in the coffin for any potential natural gas expansion, failing to acknowledge PGE’s plan for potential natural gas expansion as part of the utility’s resource plan.
“The Oregon Public Utilities Commissioners took renewable proposals seriously and seemed to have an attitude that new fracked gas infrastructure made no sense,” Damon Motz-Storey, program assistant for Oregon Physicians for Social Responsibility, told ThinkProgress via email. “Portland General Electric… saw the writing on the wall when the people of Portland and Multnomah County mobilized to pass the 100 percent resolutions and backed off accordingly. I don’t think the timing is coincidental: the people have risen up and made it clear that healthy energy solutions must be 100 percent clean and renewable.”
Moving forward, PGE is working with the Public Utilities Commission on their plan for new renewable resources. The utility had previously asked to be allowed to proceed with an acquisition of 175 megawatts of new renewable energy, the equivalent of one new megafarm of wind turbines. But a small coalition of consumer watchdog groups, including the Citizens Utility Board of Oregon, have fought that proposal, arguing that building new renewable capacity now isn’t necessary for the utility to meet its commitments required by the state’s renewable energy standard. In Oregon, when utilities install a megawatt of renewable energy, they are also granted a megawatt of a renewable energy credit, which they can either save for future compliance or sell to others. Consumer groups argue that PGE currently has enough renewable credits to meet the state requirements through 2030 — and argue that waiting to install renewable capacity will mean lower prices for consumers, as technology improves and becomes cheaper over the coming decade.
PGE, however, counters that installing more renewable capacity now would be cheaper for consumers, due in large part to federal taxes that are set to expire in the next few years. Plus, Corson said, it’s clear that consumers, as well as local officials, want to see the utility move more proactively toward renewable energy.
“Clearly our customers want renewables and want us to go in that direction,” Corson said. And while PGE technically isn’t regulated by the city of Portland or the county of Multnomah, it’s still actively grappling with what the area’s newest commitment to 100 percent renewable energy means for the utility’s future.
“It’s a little ambiguous in that they are not are regulator, per se, but one of the things that we have often said is that our goal is to reflect our customers values, and that applies in many different areas in terms of how we conduct ourselves as a corporate citizen and an employer, but also with regard to renewable power and decarbonization,” Corson said. “How do we make that work? We’ve been supportive of them in setting those goals, and now we’re working with them to try to understand how that is going to work and what we can do to help them achieve those goals.”
Regulators, too, are likely to include the city and state’s renewable energy goals — which are more ambitious than the state law — into account when weighing different utilities’ long-term plans.
“The Oregon Public Utility Commission is ultimately governed by state law, so the city and county’s decision is not binding on it, but state law requires it to balance rates as well as reliability as well as other goals,” Kristin Eberhard, a senior researcher with the Sightline Institute, told ThinkProgress. “This 100 percent goal is higher than the state goal, so it will definitely take that into account.”
Portland and Multnomah County won’t officially be required to transition to 100 percent renewable energy until 2050 — a transition that will require the city and county to completely rework almost every part of their economies, from the cars deployed as part of the city fleet to the types of electricity available to the city’s most vulnerable communities. But for Commissioner Vega Pederson, the work for that transition has already begun, and will continue to guide the city and county’s choices as it moves into the coming decades.
“If you have a strong goal that our choices are going to be clean energy choices, that brings clarity to decision making,” she said. “It’s important to set these goals today so we are doing the right thing for climate and energy in the future.”