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Commission grills utilities on coal deal

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SALEM — Oregon’s two largest utilities presented the case for legislation to phase out coal energy during a special meeting of the Oregon Public Utility Commission Friday.

Skeptical commissioners pressed utility representatives to explain whether the bill would affect the operations of their coal plants in other states, and how the companies would maintain a reliable power supply during a major transition to variable sources such as solar and wind.

Lawmakers plan to ask the Public Utility Commission to weigh in on the costs and benefits of the bill, which the Legislature will consider during the 35-day session that began Monday.

House Bill 4036, which resulted from negotiations between PacifiCorp, Portland General Electric and the environmental coalition Renew Oregon, would require the utilities to use renewable power sources such as wind and solar to serve at least 50 percent of energy demand in Oregon by 2040.

Under the deal negotiated with Renew Oregon, PacifiCorp would stop using coal power for its Oregon customers by 2030 and Portland General Electric would do so by 2035. The environmental groups agreed to drop their efforts to put an initiative on the November ballot that would eliminate coal power, if lawmakers and the governor approve House Bill 4036.

Public Utility Commissioners earlier raised concerns about the legislation privately, in emails with staff in Gov. Kate Brown’s office that were obtained and reported by The Oregonian.

“We (at the public utility commission) have some deep concerns about these negotiations because we think they will not be effective in reducing carbon emissions, but they will be expensive to consumers,” PUC Chairwoman Susan Ackerman wrote in a Dec. 15 email to Brown’s chief of staff Kristen Leonard and energy adviser Ruchi Sadhir.

Commissioner John Savage listed similar concerns. “It won’t alter one bit what coal plants run and what are shut down regardless of what folks say,” Savage wrote in a Dec. 17 email to Sadhir.

Ackerman said state Sen. Lee Beyer, D-Springfield, asked the commission to prepare an analysis of the measure for lawmakers. The two utilities released analyses earlier this week which showed House Bill 4036 would increase the cost of power to customers by roughly 1 percent annually in the lead-up to full implementation. The utilities found the renewable energy requirements in the legislation would be $880 million to $960 million less expensive for customers than the ballot measure proposal to eliminate coal, Initiative Petition 63.

Beyer is co-sponsor of a competing bill to switch over to a carbon-trading system, and said his request isn’t a sign of his position on the compromise plan.

“It is merely an attempt to make sure that legislators will have the benefit of the informed and independent judgment of the PUC about the proposal,” Beyer wrote.

The commissioners and utilities briefly discussed where the companies might obtain the large amounts of renewable power necessary to meet the proposed mandates. Portland General Electric employees said in order to simplify their analysis of the bill’s impacts, they assumed the additional renewable energy would come from wind turbines. Ackerman noted that wind turbines already occupy most of the viable sites along the Columbia River Gorge. Brett Sims, Portland General Electric’s resource strategy director, said it was true that sites in the area are “less plentiful” and the utility would have to look to other regions or states to meet the 50 percent renewable proposal. Commissioner Stephen Bloom said that could add to the cost, since new transmission lines might be necessary for wind turbines in Eastern Oregon and it could be difficult to install turbines along the coast due to the presence of the federally protected marbled murrelet.

The commission also raised questions about the requirement for PacifiCorp and Portland General Electric to file plans with the Public Utility Commission to increase charging infrastructure for electric vehicles. The bill also lays out guidelines for the utilities to pass the cost on to customers.

“Are you saying it’s OK for low-income customers to subsidize a Tesla owner?” Savage asked.

Bryce Dalley, vice president of regulation at PacifiCorp, said no.

“You’re asking a certain group of customers to subsidize another group of customers,” Savage said.

The Capital Bureau is a collaboration between EO Media Group and Pamplin 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..