A compromise working its way through the Oregon Legislature could end a long-standing fight over renewable energy mandates, which is set to come to a head at the ballot box in November.
Oregon requires large utilities to get 25 percent of their energy from new renewable sources by 2025. Smaller utilities must reach lower targets.
A recent influx of power-hungry data centers is pushing smaller Eastern Oregon utilities closer to large-utility status. Faced with the prospect of complying with the tougher standards, a lobbyist for the Umatilla Electric Cooperative has been collecting signatures for a ballot measure that would allow Umatilla and other consumer-owned utilities to get around the mandates.
Proponents of the mandate say the ballot measure would undermine the effort to spur investment in renewables.
The compromise would still require the affected utilities to eventually meet the 25 percent target, but they’ll have more flexibility about how to get there. It was approved unanimously in the House this past week and goes before a Senate committee on Thursday.
“These data farms, these industries, are large, large consumers of power,” said Rep. Greg Smith, R-Heppner, who worked with Gov. John Kitzhaber’s office to help broker the deal. “And the population of these communities is not growing.”
Older dams’ output excluded
Hydropower from dams built before 1995 doesn’t count toward the 25 percent renewables target under Oregon’s 2007 energy mandate, known as the renewable portfolio standard. Proponents say that’s because it was intended to spur new green-energy investments.
The ballot measure would allow utilities to use all dams to satisfy the energy mandates. Because the rural electric cooperatives get nearly all their power from the dams on the Columbia River, they’d be able to meet the standard without buying additional renewable energy.
They’ve submitted just under 13,000 of the 87,213 signatures they’ll need to quality for the ballot in November.
Asked to confirm whether he plans to drop the ballot measure if the Senate approves the compromise, Paul Cosgrove, a lobbyist for the Umatilla Electric Cooperative and one of the ballot measure’s chief petitioners, said “nothing will happen until after the bill becomes a law.”
“We will continue active signature gathering in the meantime,” he added.
Under the compromise, hydropower prohibition remains intact, but consumer-owned utilities like Umatilla would get a cheaper way to comply in the early years. Rather than buying and distributing renewable power directly, the affected utilities will be allowed to buy credits that are created when wind farms, solar panels or other renewable energy projects are created elsewhere.
The change would result in delaying construction of about 12 to 40 megawatts worth of renewable energy projects, said Varner Seaman, policy director for the Renewable Northwest Project. That’s like pushing back the construction of three to 12 wind turbines from 2022 until the 2030s, he said.
“It’s a reasonable agreement with the parties and it manages the risk of a ballot measure, and we think that it gives us a good path forward,” Seaman said.
The measure would also order the Public Utility Commission, which regulates utilities, to study whether it’s feasible to allow businesses to pay extra to get renewable energy, similar to a program that already exists for residential customers. That provision is intended to appease utilities already working to comply with the large-utility mandates, which include Portland General Electric and PacificCorp.
“This bill creates more certainty, more pathways for renewable power,” said Rep. Jules Bailey, D-Portland.