PGEs green power hangs in balance

Backers of clean energy options view the auction block as an opportunity

When bankrupt Enron Corp. sells its subsidiary Portland General Electric, a lot more will be at stake than the cost of power, environmentalists say.

A new owner, private or public, either could help lead the Northwest into an age of clean, renewable energy, or could end up relying on power-generating units and strategies that spew air pollution and harm fish.

'PGE has a huge environmental effect. Electric utilities always do,' said Fred Heutte, energy coordinator for the Oregon chapter of the Sierra Club. 'Different owners can have much different perspectives on how to handle environmental issues.'

Enron began accepting bids for PGE in August. Among other groups that have expressed interest, both the city of Portland and the Oregon Public Power Coalition Ñ a group that endorses public ownership of PGE Ñ are crafting proposals to acquire the utility to ensure that it remains locally controlled.

Environmentalists say public ownership would be the most effective way to make sure the utility remained a good steward of the environment and continued to pursue solar, wind power and other 'green' energy projects.

'From my point of view, local ownership through the city is exactly the right way to go,' Heutte said. 'I think an out-of-state owner would want to recover its investment and not have a lot of community interest because they are not based here.'

The Sierra Club has not formally endorsed any PGE purchase proposal. The Portland chapter of the Oregon Pacific Green Party has endorsed the efforts of the Oregon Public Power Coalition to form five people's utility districts in PGE's territory.

'One of our basic positions as a party is creating a sustainable energy future,' said Judy Barnes, a member of the Green Party and a petitioner in the OPPC effort. 'Having local control over a utility with a directly elected board of directors allows you to move forward those agendas.'

Control of clean energy

As the owner of eight hydroelectric facilities on the Clackamas, Deschutes, Bull Run and Willamette rivers plus two coal-fired and two gas-fired plants, PGE wields a lot of power over the environment, Heutte says.

The Portland utility has the ability to lower and raise river water levels Ñ to control how much power is produced in its hydroelectric dams Ñ in ways that either protect or undermine the health of fish.

In addition, if the utility is short on electricity, it can boost the output of coal- and gas-fired plants, emitting extra carbon dioxide and other air pollutants.

Just as important, the utility relies on its own power plants and long-term contracts to supply only 50 percent of customers' needs. PGE said recently that it wants to construct new electricity-generating facilities to avoid the volatility of purchasing that much electricity on the market.

The utility, and any buyer's power-purchase decisions, will help shape the future of how electricity is generated for Portland area customers, said Bob Jenks, executive director of the Citizens' Utility Board of Oregon.

Wind power is quickly becoming the lowest-cost long-term energy option, said Jenks, who is now working with the city to help shape a proposal for a public takeover of PGE.

Making headway

Environmental activists acknowledge that PGE has taken some important steps toward acquiring and selling 'clean' energy. PGE purchases 24.9 megawatts of wind power from the Vansycle Ridge power plant near Pendleton, and all customers pay for that renewable energy, said Thor Hinckley, manager of renewable power programs for PGE.

PGE offers customers the option of buying 'green' power at a price premium, a program that has seen its enrollment more than double Ñ to 14,000 customers Ñ since March, when Oregon's electric restructuring law took effect and provided more options for customers.

However, green power makes up only a small portion of PGE's overall electricity resource portfolio. Wind power, while becoming more price-competitive with fossil fuels, is still more expensive than electricity from coal- or gas-fired power plants, PGE's Hinckley noted.

The most aggressive purchasers of nonpolluting energy across the Northwest are publicly owned municipal utilities, said Rachel Shimshak, director of the Renewable Northwest Project, a Portland nonprofit group.

Municipal utilities such as the Eugene Water & Electric Board have been the most successful in marketing green power programs. Under these programs, utilities funnel a portion of the price premium into the construction of 'clean' power plants that displace fossil-fuel fired facilities.

A recent Renewable Northwest Project report showed that the Eugene green power program had one of the highest customer participation rates, at 3.3 percent.

By comparison, Portland's electricity providers, PGE and PacifiCorp, have fairly low participation rates: About 0.7 percent of PGE's customers purchase green energy, and 0.4 percent of PacifiCorp's do.

Getting more green

Both the city and the Oregon Public Power Coalition Ñ which has offered its people's utility district proposal as a backup to a city-owned PGE Ñ say their plans likely would lead to a greener PGE. However, neither city Commissioner Erik Sten Ñ the main backer of the city plan Ñ nor Dan Meek Ñ head of the OPPC effort Ñ could specify how green PGE would become.

They said purchase decisions would be left up to the utilities' governing boards.