The spokesperson for Oregon’s largest publicly-owned utility discusses what other cities can learn from its Eugene analysis.
In December, the Eugene Water & Electricity Board (EWEB) published its Integrated Resource Plan, in which the public utility predicted demand for electricity would start to increase 2% per year starting in 2030.
The 67-page report recommended the utility increase its reliance on hydroelectric power, pursue a buildout of batteries paired with new wind resources, and develop customer programs aimed at staggering energy use to take pressure off the power grid.
On Feb. 21, the EWEB will host a town hall meeting for consumers to voice their opinions on the resource plan, and how to the utility could best meet its energy goals.
Oregon Business spoke with EWEB spokesperson Aaron Orlowski about the report’s findings, which he says are in line with rising electrification needs across the state. EWEB is the largest publicly owned utility in Oregon, and Orlowski says EWEB’s analysis can serve as a blueprint for Oregon’s other utilities to develop plans to meet their own power needs.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What did your study find was driving the increasing consumption of electricity?
People are switching to electric vehicles. People are getting electric heat pumps because they’re efficient — but primarily, it’s the transportation and people switching to EV’s.
In December, Oregon joined California and Washington in banning the sale of new gas-powered cars starting in 2035. Eugene and Milwaukie’s city council also passed building electrification ordinances recently, as have cities in other states. As we fight climate change, that’s something that other cities might pursue.
Your report details how rising electrification will overtax the energy grid during peak times in the winter months. How are you going to address that?
One of the findings we had is that customer partnerships are going to be important for us going forward. One of the most important ones is a set of programs called Demand Response. The gist of that is that we would work with our customers to reduce their electricity demand at moments when demand is at its highest.
For instance, it’s possible to manage charging of electric vehicles so that instead of someone just getting home from work at five o’clock and plugging in their electric vehicle, they have a technical piece that delays the charge later, say around 2 a.m. We want to shift demand from the daytime to the nighttime when that energy is cheap and abundant.
One of the most affordable demand response programs to set up is time-of-use rates, which charge customers more for the electricity they use depending on the time of day they use it. Other affordable programs for EWEB to implement include direct load control for residential space and water heating. Utility-controlled electric vehicle charging is more expensive to set up, and our initial analysis only selected a very small amount of that at the very end of the 20-year study period.
It’s worth noting that time-of-use rates will probably prompt customers to change their electricity usage patterns on their own. With the right price signals, they will voluntarily install software that shifts electric vehicle charging to off-peak times, without any direct intervention from the utility.
The reason it’s important to do that is because when the demand is at its highest, electricity tends to be more carbon intensive. If everyone in Oregon suddenly uses a ton of electricity, all the cheap, easy sources are used up. Then planners must turn on the natural gas plants to add that extra electricity to the grid.
What are you hoping to learn from your customer outreach program?
Right now, we’re trying to figure out the types of programs we would need.
We’re going to need to figure out how much capacity there is in Eugene to implement these programs, like how many people have electric vehicles right now? How many people are going to have them in 10 years, how many customers would be interested in which programs, and how much would it cost to implement it?
We have a couple plants here in town that take excess woody material from lumber processing, and they burn that for energy, so are those sources of energy valuable to our customers, because they’re here locally in town?
What we are seeing right now is that there is a need. We examined what demand is going to be for the next 20 years and what are the available resources, and our modeling software crunched all the numbers and suggested to us that there will be a need for this kind of program. I think that’s going to be the case for a lot of utilities around Oregon.
Cities across the state are grappling with peak demand and how do they lower that peak demand. They’ll need to know what programs their customers are going to be interested in, and how many of their customers can they convince to participate.
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What do you think other cities can take from this assessment?
EWEB is Oregon’s largest publicly-owned utility, so we have a unique position, and all of us are going to face very similar challenges in the next 20 years. We’re all seeing electrification – all of our customers are switching to EVs and electric heat pumps.
We know that we have a need to start procuring new resources starting in 2026, so we need to start putting some plans into the ground for what we’re going to do for those new resources. We all have contracts for existing resources that expire in 2026, and then some more contracts that expire in 2028. We may continue those contracts, or we’ll need to look at alternatives. That depends on the results of our Demand Response Program.
We all get hydropower from the Bonneville Power Administration, and for all of us, it’s a really reliable low-cost source. So, it’s a good one to rely on. The other finding that we got is that to supplement that hydropower, new wind farms and new utility-scale batteries – which are batteries in structures the size of shipping containers – are really viable.
Why does your report recommend more investment in wind and battery, as opposed to other renewable energy sources?
Our study assumed that there would not be any new capacity for hydropower. We already get about 80% of our energy from hydro, so that’s the lion’s share. Most of that comes from the Bonneville Power Administration, which is a federal agency that sells energy from big dams on the Columbia River system.
It costs money for a utility like us to convince our customers to use less energy or to shift their usage to different times of the day. And sometimes it’s just cheaper to buy a new wind farm.
Wind tends to generate energy during the seasons when we need it most, which is the winter, when everyone is using electricity all the time to stay warm. The batteries fill in the gaps when renewable energy sources like wind and solar are not generating. And they can also be used to even out the cost.
For utilities, the price of buying energy that we then sell and serve to our customers is going up and down all the time. It varies by $100, sometimes from week to week. Having a battery means you can charge the battery when energy is cheap, you can store the extra energy, and then you can discharge it to your customers or sell it back to other utilities when that energy is expensive. The cost of building batteries is a little lower because we’re able to make a little bit of that money back selling some of that energy when it’s higher costs.
The reason we don’t recommend pursuing solar is essentially because solar doesn’t generate as much energy for as low of a cost in the winter, when we need it, as wind does.
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