Electric grids do not change overnight. Power plants and other infrastructure are multi-decade investments, and it’s rare to retire them early. So, it’s a bit painful to watch how slowly they have been getting cleaned up. Even with the majority of new power plants being renewable energy power plants, the percentage of electricity coming from renewables only creeps up.
That can make 100% renewable energy or 100% clean electricity commitments seem car too far out, far too slow. A potential new requirement for utilities in the state of Oregon is one such example. If it gets through the state legislature, it will be one of the most aggressive timelines in the United States. However, it still gives the utilities nearly 20 years to fully decarbonize. Yes, 100% clean electricity by 2040 is ambitious when compared to other laws around the States. However, when looking at how much we need to cut emissions by 2040, that should be more of an average or norm than a leadership position. Nonetheless, in political context, it is something to celebrate.
Additionally, the bill as it is currently written requires that electric companies such as Portland General Electric and Pacific Power (the state’s two largest utilities) cut their carbon emissions 80% by 2030. An 80% reduction in emissions from a baseline level in just about a decade is a pretty aggressive transition for this sector. What is the baseline year, you ask? That’s actually not in the legislation. Not seeing it reported, I dug up the bill (Oregon House Bill 2021) and found this instead of a specific starting point: “Requires DEQ to determine each electric company’s baseline emissions level and, for each retail electricity provider, the amount of emissions reduction necessary to meet the established clean energy targets in the state policy.” Knowing how much these kind of things can be corrupted, I’m not thrilled to see a lack of clarity on this. However, I expect the state’s Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) would be just about the best outfit to come up with the baseline. I hope.
Back to the state’s potential new requirement, reporting out of Oregon indicates that the legislation is likely to be passed this year. “Everyone OPB interviewed for this story suggested the bill is likely to pass this year, marking a significant milestone in Oregon’s energy policy — even if it’s one other states got to first.” It apparently has 100% opposition from Republicans in the state legislature, but Republicans don’t rule the show there. Its likelihood of passing is reportedly high despite a cap-&-trade bill dying last year as Republicans walked out of session early in order to kill it. This new bill is much narrower. Furthermore, it seems to have the support of the electric utility companies (which is something I find indicative of a not particularly aggressive legislative attempt, but I won’t get into all kinds of speculation or insinuation regarding that).
One line that rather annoyed me in the OPB reporting on the story is the following quote from Sunny Radcliffe, director of governmental affairs and energy policy at PGE, regarding getting to 100% clean electricity: “There is a lack of clarity for how we as an industry are going to get the last bits out,” Radcliffe said. “I don’t know anybody in our industry who knows how to get to zero with the technology we have today.”
I don’t know how Radcliffe doesn’t know anyone in the industry who can see how to get to 100% renewable electricity. After all, some places are already there (including places larger than Oregon), and there are these newfangled things called batteries that some people in the industry must have heard of. Also, by the way, a 2015 analysis out of Stanford showing how Oregon could get to 100% renewable electricity was referenced in the OPB article. In fact, I discovered the Oregon news because the lead author of that paper, Mark Z. Jacobson, tweeted out the story.
Anyway, let’s not harp on one quote from an industry player. Yes, we know how Oregon could get to 100% renewable electricity by 2040 — no worries.
There is plenty of good history and context on the Oregon bill over in that OPB article, so I recommend checking it out if you are curious to learn more. It’s one of the best pieces of local journalism I’ve seen on the topic of state renewable energy. The only major thing I’d change is that I’d point out what I just pointed out above. Though, the writer, Dirk VanderHart, did highlight the Stanford study in the article a bit before including that confusing quote from Radcliffe, so let’s just say that VanderHart slipped in the counterpoint preemptively and less offensively than I just did.
The article also points out key areas where the legislative shift from a cap-and-trade bill to this clean-electricity bill is evidence of somewhat deflated ambition. “Even if successful, the proposal only addresses a segment of the state’s carbon dioxide output.
“According to the DEQ, emissions from electricity accounted for 30% of the state’s greenhouse gas emissions in 2019. The entities regulated under HB 2021 are responsible for the vast majority of that, but some providers are left untouched.
“Several dozen small consumer-owned utilities around the state are not impacted by the bill. Nor is Idaho Power, the state’s smallest investor-owned utility, which was removed from HB 2021 after pressing for an exemption and touting its own decarbonization goals.”
I am certainly of the opinion that we need strong legislation to adequately deal with the climate catastrophe we are inviting upon ourselves. Though, in the case of stories like this, I am typically inspired to point out that we can each take individual action with or without such legislation. We can install record-cheap solar power on our roofs (well, some of us can) and we can switch to electric cars. In fact, the largest electric car seller in the country (by far) is also the second largest solar installer in the country and, seemingly, the one offering the cheapest solar, so you can quickly and easily go solar and go electric at the same time via a simple online store. So, whether Sunny Radcliffe knows how the whole state could run on renewables by 2040, Sunny could be driving on sunshine himself within a matter of months if he wanted to.