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U.S. West Coast: Carbon Free by 2045 … or Earlier

Oregon Legislature Passes House Bill 2021, 100% Clean Electricity for All By 2040

Originally published on NRDC Expert Blog.
By
Angus Duncan, PNW Consultant to NRDC

HB 2021, Oregon’s “100% Clean Electricity” bill just approved by the legislature and sent to Governor Brown’s desk for signing, aligns with New York for the most aggressive state clean electricity goal in the country — zero greenhouse gas emissions in the grid by 2040. Together with commitments by California and Washington to the same outcome by 2045, it envisioned a 100% clean west coast before mid-century.

Organizations in support of HB 2021

With President Biden proposing 100% clean electricity by 2035, and the continuing tech gains and power cost reductions in solar, wind and storage, there’s every likelihood all these state goals will be revisited and revised to still earlier dates.

HB 2021 isn’t the sweeping cure-all carbon cap bill many in Oregon have sought. In some ways it’s Oregon catching up to similar standards adopted by our neighbors north (WA) and south (CA), and seven other states. A broader, economy-wide carbon cap was deep-sixed by Republican legislators walking out on their jobs the last two sessions to deny the Democratic majority the two-thirds quorum requirement in our Constitution.

But the bill has many winning qualities that, together with other steps the state and local governments have taken, raise the national bar for state-level climate and clean energy actions and ambitions.

As important, the measure was developed prior to the session in determined stakeholder meetings that included the two investor-owned electric utilities, environmental justice advocates, unions, local governments, consumer advocates and environmental organizations. It arrived in Salem with broad support, and with provisions sought and agreed to by a broad coalition of parties.

Elements of HB 2021: Setting an Oregon 100% Clean Standard for Electricity

First the substance: the bill sets a 2040 sunset on any greenhouse gas emissions in electricity served to Oregon homes and businesses by regulated utilities and independent providers (consumer-owned utilities aren’t regulated by Oregon’s Public Utilities Commission, but their hydroelectric-based resources are already near 100% emissions-free).

To get earlier reductions, the bill has intermediate required targets: 90% clean by 2035; 80% by 2030. The regulated utilities must demonstrate to their regulators “continuous progress” toward decarbonizing in between those dates. The OPUC is directed to authorize all the usual suspects — renewables, storage, energy efficiency, demand management, fossil plant retirements — as elements of a utility’s Clean Energy Plan.

Other key elements:

  • No New Gas in Oregon: No siting of new gas-fired generation in Oregon.
  • Managing Customer Risk: Emissions reductions can be paused if costs spike or system reliability is threatened, but the requirements are only stayed during the event, and utilities must have an approved plan to return to the reductions pathway.
  • Community Energy: Utilities must work with the communities they serve on local (“distributed”) energy development and resilience projects, and with local governments offer “green” tariff plans to consumers. The bill authorizes $50 million in state support for community energy projects.
  • Labor Standards: Requires prevailing wage and benefits for any new energy project 10 megawatts or larger.

The Fruits of Collaboration

The bill is only the most recent product of a several-decades-long collaboration between environmental and ratepayer advocates and the state’s two large electric utilities, Portland General Electric and PacifiCorp. These parties have the same adversarial relationships and points of friction that such groups have elsewhere in the country. But they also have a history of searching out common ground, beginning in the 1980’s with agreement to begin treating electricity efficiency as an energy resource that would compete, in utility planning, with new power plants. Over the years efficiency has become the second largest electricity “resource” in the Pacific Northwest’s portfolio, behind hydroelectricity but ahead of any fossil fuel.

This collaboration has led also to: (1) one of the first legislated Renewable Portfolio Standards in the country, in 2007; (2) a negotiated agreement to early closure — by the end of 2020 — of Oregon’s only in-state coal plant, PGE’s 550-megawatt Boardman facility; (3) SB 1547, setting a 2030 end date for delivering any coal-generated electricity to customers, in the 2016 session.

Emergence of a New Ally

A key reason for this session’s success has been the active collaboration of Oregon’s equity and environmental justice communities. These EJ stakeholders made serious and substantive contributions to HB 2021 especially in shaping and advocating for community energy, resilience and labor standards provisions that would not have made the cut without their increasingly skilled advocacy. The bill template we and the utilities ended up using was developed by, and introduced on behalf of, these EJ groups. They also originated companion Healthy Homes and helping low-income households avoid service interruptions for difficulties keeping current on their bills.

Collateral Efforts Continue in Oregon

While legislative struggles often hog the limelight, there’s important complementary work underway at agency and community levels to refine and press forward the state’s decarbonization agenda.

  • Governor Brown’s 2020 Executive Order stepped up the state’s GHG reduction goals, included directions to every state agency with a share of the climate agenda, and required them to “prioritize and expedite (actions) that could accelerate reductions. …”
  • Oregon’s Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) is developing an administrative carbon cap that will require emissions reductions in sectors where existing state law allows, including for transportation, natural gas and industrial emissions.
  • Separately, DEQ is upping Oregon’s Transportation Clean Fuels Standard from the current 10% emissions reduction goal to 25% below 2015 levels by 2035.
  • Two state agencies are directed to set goals and pathways for Oregon’s Natural and Working Lands to increase carbon sequestration and reduce land-based emissions (Oregon has some of the most carbon-dense forests on the planet, already sequestering some 30 million net tons of CO2e and with the potential to increase this by 30% to 50%).
  • The state’s land use policies, implemented by local governments, are leveraging urban design and densities to enable less driving and more walking/biking/transit.
  • The state’s largest transit agency, serving the Portland metro area, is committed to an all-electric bus and train fleet and has started the transition.

Notwithstanding these efforts, Oregon’s emissions reductions have stalled at a level 15% below their 1999 peak but the same amount above their 1990 baseline levels. As electricity emissions have declined, transportation and natural gas emissions have risen. Electrification gains are stalled by low gasoline and natural gas prices, and by gas company intransigence. Urban design in Oregon’s cities, shaped by the automobile, resists rapid reconfiguration to walking, bikes and transit. Much of Oregon’s carbon-dense forests are owned and intensely logged by private companies with demanding cash flow goals.

There are still heavy lifts ahead. But all involved in the enactment of HB 2021 should take a bow, on behalf of a global clean energy transition that just got a bit easier.

Featured image courtesy of Oregon Shines, via Joe Wachunas.


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NRDC is the nation's most effective environmental action group, combining the grassroots power of 1.3 million members and online activists with the courtroom clout and expertise of more than 350 lawyers, scientists, and other professionals.

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