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Senate vote sends renewable energy plan to governor

PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP/EO MEDIA GROUPSALEM — A controversial bill that requires Oregon’s two largest utilities to get 50 percent of their electricity from sources such as wind and solar by 2040 is on its way to Gov. Kate Brown’s desk for a signature, after the state Senate voted 17-12 to pass the measure Wednesday.

The bill also requires Portland General Electric and PacifiCorp to stop using coal power to serve their Oregon customers. Representatives of Portland General Electric and the advocacy group Renewable Northwest told lawmakers last month the bill might actually have a greater impact on utilities’ decisions on whether to replace coal with natural gas, because Portland General Electric already plans to close Oregon’s only coal power plant in Boardman by 2020 and stop purchasing coal power from out of state.

At the same time, incentives added to the legislation last week could fire up more power plants that burn wood and garbage. Sen. Lee Beyer, D-Springfield, said Wednesday that the biomass incentives would lead to job creation in rural areas of the state. But researchers have also raised concerns that wood-burning power plants can generate more pollution than coal. They have questioned the carbon reduction calculations underlying classification of biomass as a source of renewable energy.

Beyer, who previously served as an Oregon public utility commissioner, said he remembered the concerns raised in 2007 when the Legislature adopted the state’s first renewable energy mandate. The bill that the Senate passed on Wednesday would double the existing mandate.

“One of the things I heard a lot at that time was it was going to add significantly to ratepayers rates,” Beyer said. The legislation passed on Wednesday allows the utilities to seek rate increases to pay for renewable energy that is up to 4 percent more expensive than traditional sources such as natural gas. Utilities can request those rate increases, which are allowed under the current renewable energy mandate, in addition to broader periodic rate increases. “We’ve never gotten close to that cost cap, and it’s unlikely we will,” Beyer said.

That did not quell opposition by Republicans.

The vote Wednesday afternoon followed more than two hours of Republican procedural moves that extended the debate but had little impact on the outcome. Democrats had identified the bill as a top policy priority from the start of the short session, and the utilities and environmental groups also lobbied hard for the legislation.

Much of the controversy around the bill stemmed from news reports that Brown’s administration had instructed the Oregon Public Utility Commission not to go public with talking points it had drafted regarding concerns about the legislation. Public utility commissioners raised concerns the measure would be expensive for ratepayers yet do little to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from coal plants.

Brown has suggested that she supports the bill, but has not said publicly whether she will sign it.

“What I do object to is shutting out people who ought to have a full franchise in the discussion about an energy policy like this one,” Senate Republican Leader Ted Ferrioli, R-John Day, said during a floor speech Wednesday. “The idea here would be, at least if it’s conducted in the Oregon way — the way I like to think of the Oregon way — would be to gather proponents and dissenters together, and hear the best from both of them.”

The utilities, environmental groups, renewable energy industry and Citizens’ Utility Board of Oregon drafted the original version of the legislation behind closed doors starting in late 2015, and that process also fueled much of the criticism of the bill.

After environmental groups failed to get a bill to end coal power passed during the five-month legislative session in 2015, they began gathering signatures to place measures that would accomplish this and other policy goals on the ballot in November. The environmental groups agreed to drop their efforts to get voters to pass several new renewable energy mandates in November, including an initiative that would eliminate coal power, if lawmakers and the governor approve the legislation.

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..