SALEM – Lawmakers in the Oregon House used a last-ditch maneuver Thursday evening to revive a renewable energy bill that had stalled due to Republican opposition in the Senate.
Last week, the House passed a bill that would double the state’s renewable energy mandate to require the state’s two investor-owned utilities, PacifiCorp and Portland General Electric, to use sources such as solar and wind to serve 50 percent of their customers’ energy demand by 2040. It would also require the two utilities to stop using coal power to serve their customers.
Republicans in the Senate, who oppose the bill, are drafting a minority report. Because they have no time deadline to produce the report, the move could effectively keep the measure from coming to a vote before the end of the session.
The House Committee on Rules voted 7-2 Thursday night to pass a separate piece of legislation already passed by the Senate in which supporters had inserted the renewable energy bill. That bill now goes to the full House for a vote.
House Republicans quickly responded with a move to employ the same tactic as their Senate colleagues, although it is unlikely to buy much of a delay. Under House rules, the minority report must be submitted by 5 p.m. Friday.
If passed by the House, the new bill must then go back to the Senate for approval.
The energy bill was drafted behind privately by PacifiCorp and Portland General Electric, environmental groups, the renewable energy industry and Citizens Utility Board of Oregon.
It has been controversial since before the legislative session began, because of news reports that Gov. Kate Brown’s administration instructed the Public Utility Commission not to go public with concerns the bill would be expensive for customers yet do little to reduce emissions from coal power plants.
Democratic lawmakers negotiated the latest version of the bill in closed-door meetings this week with representatives of the two utilities and other interested parties. The lawmakers involved in the negotiations said the Oregon Public Utility Commission, which regulates the utilities and is supposed to watch out for their customers, was involved in the negotiations this week. No one from the commission was called to testify on the latest version of the bill Thursday. The only testimony was from the four lawmakers who negotiated the latest version of the bill, and they gave a quick overview of its contents.
“I can tell you this week the PUC has been in the room,” said Rep. Mark Johnson, R-Hood River, a supporter of the bill.
Sen. Lee Beyer, D-Springfield, was involved in the negotiations on the bill this week along with Rep. Jessica Vega Pederson, D-Portland. Beyer said the latest version of the bill will ensure the Public Utility Commission has clear authority to require PacifiCorp and Portland General Electric to meet the renewable mandate in a cost-efficient manner, using competitive bidding to acquire new sources of electricity.
“I was concerned to make sure the issues of having the PUC having their authority to control things and protect ratepayers was in place,” said Beyer, a former Public Utility Commissioner.
The latest version of the bill does add back some elements sought by the utilities. For example, an earlier version of the bill crafted by Beyer would have lowered the annual cost cap for the renewable energy mandate from 4 percent to 3 percent. The existing renewable energy mandate allows utilities to ask the Public Utility Commission to approve rate increases based on costs incurred to meet the law.
The utilities, who have projected that doubling the renewables mandate will only raise rates by about 1 percent a year, objected to Beyer’s lower cost cap, and bill voted out of committee Thursday night returned to the 4 percent cost cap.
Hillary Borrud is a reporter with the Pamplin Media Group/EO Media Group Capital Bureau in Salem.
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