New regulation, grassroots demands and technological innovation are transforming the way electricity is generated in the West. Can Oregon emerge as a leader?
Buckle up. After 100 years of the status quo, Oregon’s electricity sector is on the edge of revolution.
It’s an unlikely area for disruption. Highly regulated, utilities answer to layers of government, citizen’s groups, investors and rate payers, while building traditional, fossil-fuel-fired generation takes lots of time and money.
Now pressure from all fronts is forcing unprecedented change. From the top, Oregon legislators will likely pass HB2020, a cap-and-trade policy designed to stem greenhouse gases, before the session ends in June. This legislation comes on the heels of approving a sweeping carbon-reduction rule in 2016.
At the same time, neighboring Washington is poised to pass a law requiring utilities to generate 100% renewable energy by 2045. California, a large energy trading partner, has both cap and trade and a 100% renewable energy mandate in place.
In the middle, cities like Eugene and Portland have set their own 100% clean and renewable energy goals. Businesses and institutions are also actively reducing their carbon footprints to satisfy triple bottom lines that value people, planet and profit.
At the grassroots level, more residential customers — 15,000 in 2018, according to the Oregon Department of Energy — are adding rooftop solar to the mix. They’re also buying more electric vehicles and smart appliances that can interact with the energy grid.
And underpinning it all is the ticking clock of climate change.
Moving to renewable resources is an obvious way to combat this existential threat, but renewable energy only works when the sun shines and the wind blows. Advanced technology is emerging, but better batteries are just part of the answer.
"It is a little disappointing that we haven't gone as far as we could." Fred Heutte, senior policy associate at NW Energy Coaltion
A deeply decarbonized, 100% renewable future requires a multi-pronged approach that includes expanded markets; diversified generation; integrated storage; a smart, flexible grid; and consumer participation. “It’s not just about reducing emissions; it’s about getting the full value out of the system,” says Fred Heutte, senior policy associate at NW Energy Coalition.
Can Oregon lead the charge?
Well, the state has had climate and greenhouse gas emission goals “longer than anybody,” says Heutte. He’s been advocating on behalf of renewables since coming to Portland in 1980 and admits that it’s “a little disappointing that we haven’t gone as far as we could.”
In fact, Oregon is nowhere near meeting 2020 emission goals set in 2007 policy. And Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group Food & Water Watch gave the state a D+ for renewable energy, as Oregon includes combustible biogases in its green portfolio. The group does not consider biogas renewable.
Singling out biogas may be nitpicky, but Oregon still gets almost 32% of its electricity from coal. Washington gets 13%, California 4%. Oregon’s green reputation may have been stronger than actual accomplishments, but now it looks like the state’s poised to lead.
When Portland General Electric (PGE), one of Oregon’s biggest investor-owned utilities, first agreed to take their coal-fired Boardman plant offline, it imagined replacing it with a few somewhat less-polluting natural-gas plants. After a series of much-publicized difficulties getting its first Carty plant online, which included the building contractor declaring bankruptcy and increased pressure from green-energy advocates, PGE pivoted.
“We listened to our stakeholders and regulators,” says Steve Corson, external communications officer for PGE via email.
Their new direction taps a variety of solutions, including the construction of the Wheatridge Renewable Energy Facility in Morrow County. The first of its scale in North America, Wheatridge co-locates and integrates 300 megawatts of wind generation and 50 megawatts of solar generation along with 30 megawatts of battery storage.
The project, a partnership with NextEra Energy Resources, is “really innovative,” according to Heutte. “It’s a more adaptable project for a more dynamic future grid.”
Renewable generation and advanced storage represent only part of Oregon’s deeply decarbonized future. For it to work, consumers need to play a role, or more precisely, an increased role. Northwest consumers are already familiar with using less energy through efficiencies, with energy efficiency counting as the region’s second-largest resource after hydropower, according to the Northwest Power and Conservation Council.
Demand response, where consumers are compensated for using less energy during peak times, is the next step. An emerging resource in the Northwest, PGE already offers a demand-response program to their industrial customers.
Residential programs that tap into smart thermostats, up-and-coming smart water heaters, heat pumps and electric-vehicle chargers are ramping up.
To get the most value, these resources need to be integrated into a controlled, automated smart grid.
PGE is testing the concept with their smart grid test-bed pilot. The largest in the U.S., the 30-month program will serve 20,000 customers in Hillsboro, Milwaukie and Portland. PGE will upgrade equipment and canvas participants to install batteries or electrical- vehicle chargers and use their on-site solar panels and smart technologies.
Utility and customer will then exchange energy and information at the local level. This back and forth will control the flow of energy, take advantage of smart technology and ease pressure on the grid.
“This project is indeed unique,” says Jeff Harris, chief transformation officer at Northwest Energy Efficiency Alliance via email. The group is serving as one of the project advisors. “It should provide real-world insights into a community-based approach.”
The Old-Fashioned Way
Nate Sandvig, director of U.S. strategic growth at National Grid Ventures, is hoping everything old is new again.
His company is proposing to build two Northwest pumped-storage projects, the 400-megawatt Swan Lake facility near Klamath Falls and Goldendale, a 1,200-megawatt project in Eastern Washington. Together they would provide much-needed capacity in a no-fossil-fuel future. They would also be the first projects of their scale built in more than 20 years.
“We need to get real on how we integrate renewables in a way that is cost effective,” Sandvig says. “The region is projected to need 8,000 megawatts of capacity, and batteries are just chipping away at the edges.”
Pumped storage comes with a lot of benefits. It’s proven and has minimal environmental impact, and the pumping technology is more advanced and efficient than ever.
But it comes with a big price tag, an estimated $750 million for the Klamath Falls project.
It needs the support and approval from Northwest utilities and regulators, though it has received federal approval. Sandvig estimates it could be up and running by 2025 if a partner to buy that stored energy can be secured.
Oregon may yet emerge as a leader in a carbonless future, but the state can’t go it alone. The development and integration of renewable resources at scale needs improved coordination with trading partners. While there doesn’t seem to be much appetite for an organized energy market like the California Independent System Operator yet, the Western energy imbalance market is a good first step.
Pioneered by PacifiCorp — the state’s other large investor-owned utility — in 2014, the Western energy imbalance market lets participating utilities buy and sell the small increments of power needed to balance renewables in real time. Part of California’s organized market, the advanced system automatically finds the lowest-cost energy to serve real-time electricity demand across a wide geographic area.
“The Western energy imbalance market lets us leverage the diversity of windy intermountain regions, the sunny southwest and the hydro-rich Northwest,” says Scott Bolton, senior vice president of external affairs and customer solutions at Pacific Power.
It also allows them to use less of their still-large portfolio of coal and gas-fired generation.
PGE joined this market in 2017. Today there are nine participants, with five more pending. Talks for more coordinated market services are in the works.
While PGE and PacifiCorp continue to make strides in cutting their carbon output, the Oregon Legislature is poised to pass HB2020, a cap-and-trade bill that would set a limit on greenhouse gas emissions and require companies that emit over a certain amount to buy allowances.
When first proposed in 2018, both utilities opposed the bill, pointing to their 2016 agreement to eliminate coal by 2035 and double the amount of renewable energy to 50% by 2040.
Now both are on board. “We think the legislation as it stands now does a good job of threading the policy needle in a way that will move us forward in reducing emissions and meeting the state’s climate-change goals, and at the same time protecting our customers from unnecessary cost increases,” says PGE’s Corson.
So, is Oregon finally living up to its green reputation and becoming a leader in the green-energy revolution?
Harris says that Oregon and the Northwest region are already “considered national leaders, and energy-efficiency organizations and utilities here are innovating new ways to keep up with a changing marketplace.”
NW Energy Coalition’s Heutte agrees, arguing “we haven’t been sitting on our hands. We’ve developed a great wind industry, more solar is coming, and there have been important gains in energy efficiency and demand response for reducing peak demand.”
And really, we’ve never been going at it alone. Oregon utilities buy power from all over the western half of the United States. Bonneville Power Administration, a federal agency with its own set of rules and regulations, supplies a large chunk of hydroelectricity to Oregon. It is the only source of electricity for some of the state’s smaller, consumer-owned utilities.
Energy is a regional game, with Oregon an important part of the West Coast’s green wall. Will the state lead? Maybe, but it’s definitely moving forward.
From No Nukes to Go Nukes?
Oregon and the Northwest will get non-greenhouse-gas-emitting power from many sources: wind, solar, hydro and…nukes?
NuScale, a Portland company, hopes to revive nuclear power with smaller, safer and cheaper reactors. Spun out from Oregon State University research, these reactors take up 1% of the space of a conventional reactor with more safeguards and far fewer moving parts. To cut costs the technology will be fabricated whole instead of assembled on-site.
Each small modular reactor generates about 60 megawatts of electricity, the perfect amount to supply heat for an industrial process or power a seawater desalination plant. A 12-reactor bundle can provide steady base load power, something wind and solar cannot.
“The applications for this technology – in Oregon, across the United States and around the world – are vast, ranging from industrial applications using process heat, to powering residential communities, critical installations and even meeting first-responder energy needs,” according to company representatives in an emailed statement.
NuScale will bring their first 12-reactor plant online at the Idaho National Laboratory in 2026. Their first customer, the Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems will use the generated electricity as part of their carbon-free power project.
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