Yet replacing even 1,000 megawatts of coal with the cheapest renewable available - wind energy - could prove impractical. It would require utilities to build some 3,000 megawatts of capacity, as wind turbines typically produce only about a third of their capacity. That's an enormous addition to the current wind fleet, and most of the best wind sites in Oregon are already taken. The intermittent nature of the resource could also create reliability issues, transmission logjams, and exacerbate oversupply issues in the spring and summer, when wind and hydroelectric dams already produce more electricity than the region can absorb. The Bonneville Power Administration says it has already tapped out its ability to integrate more wind energy in the region, which is typically accomplished by cycling the output of the federal dams up and down.
Two Oregon lawmakers have introduced a bill that would upend Oregon’s energy supply, eliminating electricity from coal-fired power plants in the next decade and replacing it with primarily wind and solar energy.
The “Coal to Clean” legislation would not only ban coal, but mandate that utilities replace it with energy sources that are 90 percent cleaner. That would bar utilities from building big natural gas-fired plants, taking two of their largest and most reliable sources of power off the table.
That would create a big and potentially expensive hole to backfill. Even with the region’s abundance of hydroelectric power, fully a third of the electricity consumed by Oregonians comes from coal-fired power plants spread around the west.
PacifiCorp still relies on coal to supply two-thirds of its customers’ power across six states, and Portland General Electric for about 30 percent of the energy it delivers in Oregon. Both utilities have been under pressure from environmental and ratepayer groups to transition away from coal, but the go-to resource to replace it has been natural gas, which has its own environmental issues (though only about half the carbon intensity of coal).
Environmental groups say it’s too risky to keep investing in dirty fossil fuels, whether upgrading coal plants with new pollution controls or building new gas plants. Neither eliminates carbon dioxide emissions, and both could leave ratepayers at risk of stranded investments or carbon penalties if strict greenhouse regulations are adopted.
“We think it will be cheaper for customers to transition away from dirty resources now and invest in a cleaner mix, ” said Rachel Shimshak, executive director of the advocacy group Renewable Northwest. “You might as well make the right decision in the first place. It’s a no-regrets policy.”
Utilities, however, think their ratepayers may have some regrets when they see the price tag and the policy’s impact on reliability.
“Its going to be in the billions and billions of dollars and how that breaks out for Oregon, it’s inestimable,” said PacifiCorp spokesman Paul Vogel. “It’s not the right way to go about this transition that we all agree that we need to be on.”
The sponsors of the bills are Sen. Chris Edwards, D-Eugene, and Rep Tobias Read, D-Beaverton. But the source of the legislation is the Sierra Club, the Oregon Conservation Network and and Renewable Northwest, which have been pushing a “Beyond Coal” campaign in Oregon for some time. Oregon’s residential ratepayer advocate, the Citizen’s Utility Board of Oregon, is also endorsing the bill despite the fact that no cost estimates have been produced.
“Ultimately we’re going to have to reduce our emissions and close the coal plants,” said Bob Jenks, CUB’s executive director. “The theory here is let’s phase these out in a reasonable timetable of ten years and do this in a way that’s least cost to ratepayers.”
The cost is a big, unanswered question, as is whether the legislation would have any practical effect in reducing greenhouse gas emissions
Oregon can’t legislate the closure of out-of-state coal plants, which could simply dispatch their output elsewhere. And in reality, it’s not possible to reject coal-based electrons at the state border or always discriminate between resources when making purchases in the wholesale power market.
The Sierra Club released the results of a poll Thursday suggesting that 71 percent of Oregonians support the bill. More than half of respondents – 58 percent – said they supported the proposal even if it would increase their energy bill. And in a bit of political stagecraft, the poll also found 47 percent of respondents said they would be more likely to vote for a politician who supported it.
Ratepayers do consistently tell utilities in surveys that they support renewables and would like to move away from coal. But it’s not at all clear how much they’re willing to pay for it. Ratepayers already have the option of paying about 10 percent more on their utility bill to offset the carbon impact of their electricity use by purchasing renewable energy credits. Only about 10 percent of customers opt to do it.
PGE has already agreed to shut its 585-megawatt Boardman coal plant in eastern Oregon in 2020, though it hasn’t firmed up plans for replacing it. Besides Boardman, there are two primary sources of coal-fired power serving Oregon: PacifiCorp’s 2,100-megawatt Jim Bridger plant in Wyoming, and the Colstrip plant in Montana, in which PGE and PacifiCorp have a collective stake of about 450 megawatts.
Tobias Read, the sponsor of the house version of the bill, says even if those out-of- state plants don’t close, Oregon would enjoy substantial economic development when the utilities went to replace the power with a combination of home-grown renewables, energy efficiency and other demand reduction programs.
Yet replacing even 1,000 megawatts of coal with the cheapest renewable available – wind energy – could prove impractical. It would require utilities to build some 3,000 megawatts of capacity, as wind turbines typically produce only about a third of their capacity.
That’s an enormous addition to the current wind fleet, and most of the best wind sites in Oregon are already taken. The intermittent nature of the resource could also create reliability issues, transmission logjams, and exacerbate oversupply issues in the spring and summer, when wind and hydroelectric dams already produce more electricity than the region can absorb. The Bonneville Power Administration says it has already tapped out its ability to integrate more wind energy in the region, which is typically accomplished by cycling the output of the federal dams up and down.
And to get a sense of the potential cost, consider PGE’s recent purchase of the Tucannon River wind farm in Southeast Washington. With just 267 megawatts of nameplate capacity, it cost $500 million.
PGE spokesman Steve Corson notes that utilities are already dealing with new federal mandates governing greenhouse gas emissions at existing power plants and are tackling the coal retirement issues as part of the “integrated resource plans” they file every other year.
“All these issues are going to have to be addressed in those analytical processes, and from our perspective that’s where they belong, not in some arbitrary stop-the-electrons-here bill. We’re very concerned about something that makes such sweeping changes in our resource planning process in such a short time frame.”
Shimshak of Renewables Northwest said utilities are hiding behind the cost and reliability questions, when their customers are telling them this is a concept they support.
Both Read and Chris Edwards, who chairs the Senate Committee on Environment and Natural Resources, say they’re not wed to any of the specific numbers in the bill and are still trying to understand the implications, cost and otherwise.
“The bill in its current state needs a lot of work,” Edwards said. “There’s no doubt that there’s broad philosophical support for moving in this direction. But people also want to understand the details, and we can’t move blindly forward without understanding the impact on rates. ”
“We’re trying to move this conversation into a higher gear, and we’re also trying to develop smart solutions to clean up the region’s energy mix.”
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