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Renewable energy way cheaper than expected

Solar power costs indicate new state law phasing out coal won't break bank after all


TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO  - Several years ago, environmental activists pushed PGE to close down its coal-fired plant at Boardman, Oregons lone coal plant. The utility later agreed to do that in 2020, but has until 2035 to stop selling coal power from two other plants in Montana. When the Oregon Legislature debated a landmark bill in March to phase out coal power in Oregon and require more renewable energy, Republican lawmakers, business groups and some Public Utility Commission officials predicted it would jack up power costs and harm industry.

But those fears appear to be overblown, based on the first round of solar and wind power deals negotiated by Pacific Power since the bill’s passage.

The Portland-based electric utility, in a filing last week with the Oregon Public Utility Commission, reported that the new renewable energy mandate would require a negligible 0.1 percent customer rate increase between now and 2028. That’s in sharp contrast to what Pacific Power told the Legislature just five months ago, that it estimated the need to boost electricity rates 0.8 percent — each year — between now and 2030.

Compounded, that annual rate increase would have translated into about a 12 percent rate increase by 2030 to meet the renewable energy mandate, says Ry Schwark, Pacific Power spokesman. That’s more than 100 times the rate increase the utility now forecasts to meet that mandate through 2028.

“I think this is a real good example of people’s fears that prove to be unfounded,” says state Sen. Lee Beyer, D-Springfield, a former public utility commissioner who helped shape the landmark bill, known as the Oregon Clean Electricity and Coal Transition Plan. “I am not surprised that the numbers are coming in lower.”

One of the main reasons: sharply falling costs for building large-scale solar energy plants in Oregon. Utilities also are learning to reap more power from their wind turbines, Beyer says. And Pacific Power has entered a new energy-balancing arrangement with California counterparts; when it’s windy and sunny here and there’s surplus wind and solar power, that can be sold easier in California.

“So it’s a combination of things that is making it work,” Beyer says.

Officials at Portland General Electric, which serves Cornelius, Banks, Gaston and Hillsboro, are optimistic they will encounter similar lower rates when they seek their own new renewable energy sources.


Panned by business

Coal plants are the leading source of greenhouse gas emissions in Oregon and a major cause of respiratory disease. But coal is also a relatively cheap form of energy.

Pacific Power and Portland General Electric, which struck a deal with environmental groups to support the coal power phaseout, testified this spring that adding more wind and solar power wouldn’t be a big burden on ratepayers because the costs were falling so fast.

But business groups such as Industrial Customers of Northwest Utilities (ICNU) were skeptical. In an opinion piece for The Oregonian, ICNU's executive director, John Carr, stated: “By ratcheting up energy costs, this plan would discourage businesses from coming here and encourage them to locate in more carbon-intensive areas.”

But Beyer says the ICNU “should be happy” with Pacific Power’s first round of deals.

Pacific Power put out a request for proposals for new renewable energy projects in April, a month after the Legislature passed the bill. It got 66 responses — and surprisingly lower prices than expected.

Carr did not respond to requests for interviews.

“We’re getting a lot of utility-scale solar coming on line in Oregon,” Schwark says.

The utility divulged the specific projects to the PUC last week in executive session but won’t reveal them publicly until contracts are signed, he says.

There’s lots of time before the plan takes full effect. Pacific Power must stop selling coal power by 2030 and PGE by 2035. The renewable energy mandate is phased in until 2040; by then, half the two utilities’ electricity must come from renewable energy — not counting the share they get from hydro power.


PGE following suit

PGE expects to undergo a similar process, and is under discussions with the PUC about how and when to issue its own request for proposals to provide more renewable energy, says its spokesman Steve Corson.

In March, PGE estimated Senate Bill 1547 would require annual rate increases of 1.5 percent between now and 2040. It doesn’t have any newer cost estimates because it hasn’t gone to the market yet as Pacific Power did, Corson says.

PGE faces different conditions than Pacific Power, which is primarily a rural electricity provider in Oregon. PGE is strongest in the more rapidly growing Portland area, and needs to provide more new energy in coming years. However, PGE would tap the same market as Pacific Power to provide solar and wind projects, and Pacific’s pending deals are a “good sign” for PGE, Corson says.

Beyer says the lower cost of solar and wind has long been projected. But he figures it took a nudge from Oregon and other states, in the form of mandates, to provide the impetus for the energy industry to keep innovating and drive down costs, knowing there was a growing market for solar and wind.

“It actually worked,” Beyer says.


Contact reporter Steve Law at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.