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'Very aggressive' goal by 2040 is proposed in a bill up for a hearing by a legislative committee.

Oregon would join the ranks of states requiring utilities to generate all of their power carbon-free under a proposed substitute for a bill introduced Wednesday, March 17.

The amendment, which substitutes for the current House Bill 2021, was requested by Rep. Pam Marsh, D-Ashland, who leads the House Energy and Environment Committee. The committee has scheduled a public hearing for Monday, March 22.

"It doesn't require any specific types of renewable generation; it doesn't pick winners and losers," Sen. Lee Beyer, D-Springfield, said in presenting the 36-page amendment.

"It also recognizes load-reduction activities, such as energy conservation, demand-response and storage, among other things. It is directly focused on reducing greenhouse-gas emissions by electricity by any means."

Between his stints as a state senator, Beyer was a member of the state Public Utility Commission from 2001 to 2010.

The substitute would require Oregon's largest utilities to offer carbon-free power to its customers by 2040. It sets interim goals of greenhouse-gas reductions by the utilities of 85% below specified baselines by 2030 and 90% by 2035.

"It is very aggressive," Beyer said.

Utilities would submit their plans to the Public Utility Commission. The baselines for greenhouse-gas emissions would be developed by the Environmental Quality Commission, the policy-making arm of the Department of Environmental Quality, which is writing the state plan for overall reduction of greenhouse gases by 80% by 2050.

Power generation, plus transportation in the form of gasoline and diesel usage by vehicles, are the largest sources of greenhouse gas emissions in Oregon.

"This bill takes a pretty hard hit at one of those," Beyer said.

Utilities already have to report their greenhouse-gas emissions, which are audited by a third party.

Beyer said although some sites may still be available in Oregon for wind turbines, he expects most of the new power will come from solar energy and photovoltaic cells set up in eastern and southern Oregon.

It was only a coincidence that the "green power" proposal was presented on St. Patrick's Day. It had been scheduled Monday, but a worldwide outage of Microsoft Teams forced legislative committees to suspend livestreaming their meetings.

Big utilities affected

About two-thirds of Oregon's power comes from three utilities: Portland General Electric, Pacific Power and Idaho Power, which serves the northeast corner of the state.

The bill would allow the three utilities to raise rates by up to 6% — though all are subject to Public Utility Commission regulation — to help pay for the transition. Beyer said he envisions them as temporary increases.

The bill would exempt consumer-owned utilities, which account for most of the other third. They generate or buy hydroelectric power, mostly from Bonneville Power Administration, the federal agency that markets power from Columbia River dams. Except for the Eugene Water and Electric Board, most of these utilities are in rural areas.

Unlike some environmental advocates, Beyer said he does not want to shut down Oregon's existing power plants fired by natural gas, which generate greenhouse-gas emissions but not on the scale of coal-fired plants. Portland General Electric shut down its coal-fired plant near Boardman last year, but still imports power from coal-fired plants in Montana.

Beyer said he envisions scenarios, such as low-water years, in which backup generating capacity will be needed.

"We don't want to create a system that puts us in a position where Texas was a few weeks ago or Southern California was last summer," Beyer said.

But he also said Oregon should not allow construction of any more gas-fired plants, which are under the authority of the Energy Facility Siting Council.

The proposed substitute would not change Oregon's requirement for utilities to draw 50% of their power from renewable sources by 2040. It also would not change Oregon's standard for lower-carbon fuels set in 2015. Beyer was the chief sponsor of that bill, which passed largely with Democratic votes.

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, Oregon generated 49% of utility-level power from hydroelectricity in 2019 and 13% from renewable sources, most of it (11%) from wind turbines. Back in 2007, when the Legislature set the original standard, renewable sources accounted for just 2%.

Marsh said she wants to add a fund that allows for state support of community small-scale renewable energy projects.

Eighteen states, up from just two in 2018, now have goals of 100% carbon-free electricity or renewables-only power.

A study released in December by Princeton University researchers at its Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment, "Net-Zero America," says the United States can reach such a goal by 2050, largely by using existing technologies and costs rising in line with historical spending trends on energy.

Renewable energy sources have come down in cost, and Chaz Teplin of the Rocky Mountain Institute told the committee that it will be relatively easier for Oregon to reach 85% of a net-zero target. Teplin said like anything else, the other 15% will be more difficult.

"I am optimistic that with so many people working on these technologies, something will fill the gap," he said.

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