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Coal on chopping block as work begins on renewable energy proposals


SALEM — Oregon lawmakers held the first hearings Tuesday on two major bills to increase limits on carbon emissions.

Legislative committees have not finished taking testimony on the bills. But lawmakers who support the bills said they expect to pass them out of committee and on to the budget writing Joint Committee on Ways and Means by next week.

House Bill 4036, which was written by the state’s two largest utilities and environmental groups, would double down on Oregon’s existing mandate to increase renewable energy. It would require Portland General Electric and PacifiCorp to use renewable power sources such as wind and solar to serve at least 50 percent of their customers’ energy demand in Oregon by 2040, up from the current state mandate of 25 percent renewable energy by 2025.

Senate Bill 1574, drafted by state Sen. Chris Edwards, D-Eugene, and Sen. Lee Beyer, D-Springfield, would replace the existing renewable energy goals with a new cap on carbon emissions and a system to buy and sell carbon pollution credits.

Much of the buzz around the legislation written by utilities and environmental groups has centered on its requirement to eliminate coal from Oregon’s power mix. But representatives of Portland General Electric and an environmental group said Tuesday that the bill would actually have a greater impact on the types of power utilities use to replace coal.

Varner Seaman, manager of state legislative affairs for Portland General Electric, told lawmakers the bill largely would not impact the company’s use of coal because it already committed to close Oregon’s only coal plant, in Boardman, by 2020.

Seaman said the utility also expects to stop taking power from the Colstrip plant in Montana in the near future, due to federal environmental regulations and other considerations. As a result, Seaman said the bill would impact the degree to which the utility replaces coal power with natural gas.

The company will still build new natural gas facilities under the bill, because it needs reliable sources when the wind is not blowing and the sun is not shining. But Portland General Electric would rely less upon natural gas for its baseload of power under the proposed mandates.

Rachel Shimshak, executive director of the advocacy group Renewable Northwest, described a similar impact.

“Without this bill, we might just replace one fossil fuel for another,” Shimshak said.

Seaman also addressed a provision in the bill that critics have said would reduce competition between the investor owned utilities and public utilities. Although the 50 percent renewable energy mandate would generally apply only to the two investor owned companies, the bill would prevent public utilities from acquiring any new customers from Portland General Electric and PacifiCorp unless they met the new renewable standard.

“We wanted to make sure that if customers choose to leave our system, that the renewables requirements of the state of Oregon follow with them,” Seaman said. “So there are provisions if you do a hostile takeover of an investor-owned service territory, that those renewables requirements will follow with the customer.”

The Capital Bureau is a collaboration between Pamplin Media Group and the EO Media Group. Hillary Borrud can be reached at 503-364-4431 or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..