SALEM – A House committee on the environment sent to a full vote Thursday a bill that would drastically alter Oregon’s energy mix, despite concerns from some lawmakers who say the bill needs more work to avoid rate hikes.
The committee voted 6-3, with a Hood River Republican joining all Democrats, to move House Bill 4036 to the floor. Two Democrats said they were concerned the bill wasn’t ready for final passage and gave “courtesy” yes votes to keep the bill moving through the Legislature before a looming deadline.
Passage out of committee is the first hurdle cleared for the bill that would seek to reduce greenhouse-gas-causing emissions by doubling the amount of renewable energy in Oregon’s supply, to 50 percent by 2040, spur more electric vehicle charging stations across the state and phase coal out of Oregon’s rates by 2035.
“I am just a little bit nervous about it from my standpoint,” said Rep. Paul Holvey, D-Eugene. “I was always worried about not hearing enough from the (public utility commissioner) on this process.”
The Public Utility Commission, the state’s ratepayer watchdog, has expressed concern about the proposed deal’s potential impact on utility bills.
The proposal would sharply increase the amount of energy in Oregon that comes from wind and solar, known as variable resources, that can be difficult for utilities to work into the energy grid to give customers reliability.
Even the bill’s supporters have acknowledged utilities will face a slightly uncertain road ahead if the Legislature passes and the governor signs the bill, which could be up for a House vote Monday before heading to the Senate for work.
Integrating larger amounts of wind and solar into the energy system “only works if those variable resources, wind and solar, and storage costs come down, and they have been,” Angus Duncan, chairman of Oregon’s Global Warming Commission, said last week.
“I’m pretty comfortable that by 2030 we will either have the capacity to integrate significantly larger amounts of renewables, or we will conclude we can’t and there’s time to turn around,” Duncan said.
The bill covers two of the state’s largest private utilities, Portland General Electric and Pacific Power, which serves customers in Central Oregon. Combined, the two provide nearly three-quarters of Oregonians with electricity.
Lawmakers have made House Bill 4036 a top priority in large part because a cluster of environmental groups has proposed a ballot measure that would be wider-reaching and more difficult for the utilities to meet. The utilities worked in private with those behind the ballot measure to create a plan lawmakers could pass instead, and first released the plan to the public three weeks before the legislative session.
Pacific Power says incorporating renewables into its energy mix could lead to about 1 percent rate increases every year over the next 15 years.
Public Utility Commission officials have questioned that estimate, saying they would like estimates to outline what could happen to prices after the renewables are fully integrated.
The utilities say while rates will likely be impacted, ratepayers would likely face sharper increases if the ballot measure passed. Ballot measure supporters, a group of nonprofits and businesses that formed a coalition called Renew Oregon, say the measure polls well.
Rep. Cliff Bentz, a Republican from Ontario, said he opposes the measure because lawmakers are rushing a major bill through a 35-day legislative session, and he’s concerned that, despite dozens of amendments to address some concerns, they’ll make a mistake.
“This bill will harm the very people we’re trying to help in other bills in this body this session. (It) seems odd we didn’t hear about this,” Bentz said. “What we heard was this is only going to cost 1.5 percent more. That’s incorrect for so many reasons. Can it still be fixed? Could be. Probably won’t be. Too bad.”
Gov. Kate Brown, addressing questions from reporters Thursday, said she was happy PGE, Pacific Power and the environmental groups got together to create the legislative proposal.
“What’s important is that we continue to move Oregon forward towards meeting our greenhouse gas emission reduction goals, that the bill does not stymie economic development in our communities throughout the state, and it does not cost ratepayers substantially,” Brown said.
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