Bumpy road for coal-to-clean energy plan

The lead proponent of Oregon’s Clean Electricity Plan said the legislation, designed to wean the state off coal-fired energy, has not met her expectations.

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Speaking at Oregon’s Energy Future conference in Portland Tuesday, Rachel Shimshak, executive director of Renewable Northwest, said she didn’t expect new proposals for new fossil fuel plants after the bill’s passage in March 2016. 

These expectations were dashed in November after the state’s largest utility, Portland General Electric (PGE), proposed expanding natural gas capacity at its existing Carty Generating Station in eastern Oregon.

The proposal was part of the utility’s integrated resource plan, which lays out a strategy for supplying customers with electric power over the next few decades.  

“The lesson we learned is that passing policy is only the first step. We need to follow up with implementation,” said Shimshak, who was part of the stakeholder group for SB 1547.

“The challenge is to get the bill implemented as anticipated.”

The 2016 Oregon Clean Electricity Plan requires the state’s investor-owned utilities, Portland General Electric and Pacific Power, to eliminate coal from their energy mix by 2035 and serve 50% of customers’ demand for electricity from renewables by 2040. The bill does not restrict natural gas as an energy source.

PGE proposes adding 175MWa (equivalent of 515MW of new wind resources) of renewables to meet the bill’s goals as well as adding new gas-fired generating capacity. The proposal is under consideration before the Public Utilities Commission.

Franco Albi, manager of PGE’s integrated resource planning, said the company’s expectation for the new legislation is to move the state towards a renewable energy future while maintaining a reliable electricity supply.

The utility’s resource planning takes account of the expected resources it will need to replace its 575MW Boardman coal plant, which is closing in 2020. 

In an interview with Oregon Business magazine published in January this year, Maria Pope, senior vice president of power supply & operations at PGE, said natural gas plants are complementary to renewables generation rather than a competing source.

Energy providers argue natural gas plants are necessary to provide back-up electricity to smooth out the variability of renewable power.

Rebecca Smith, senior energy policy analyst at the Oregon Department of Energy, warned about the risk of moving forward with energy projects before their long-term impact is fully understood.

“There are decisions made today that we will have to live with for decades,” said Smith.

“There are ongoing discussions whether to put steel in the ground or wait. I think the focus would be on taking time to do strategic planning so we understand the policy trade-offs.”