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Portland General Electric on path to clean energy future

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On October 15, 2020, the majority owner and operator, Portland General Electric (PGE), ceased operation at their Boardman Coal Plant in Morrow County in eastern Oregon.  With a 578 MW nameplate capacity, the single-unit power plant came online 40-years ago in early 1980.  It marked the end of coal as an electric fuel in the state and marked another major milestone for PGE’s transition to a cleaner power future.

PGE has committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 70% by 2040.  To achieve this goal, the company plans to add more wind, solar, and energy storage, rely on existing hydroelectric power, geothermal, and buy more clean electricity from other companies.  To support the effort, the company has significant transmission assets, including the high-voltage power lines that connect their power plants in eastern Oregon near Boardman and the Willamette Valley.  The company also owns major transmission rights on the Pacific Intertie, the West Coast electric superhighway, which enables power transactions, including the power traded in the western Energy Imbalance Market (EIM), of which PGE has been a member since October 2017.  The company’s membership in the market has resulted in estimated gross benefits of about $90 million since joining just three years ago.

Oregon’s power mostly hydro and natural gas

Today most of the electricity produced in Oregon is from hydroelectric and natural gas power plants.  In 2019, 48.7% (30.4 million MWh) was generated at hydropower plants, while natural gas accounted for 33.6% (20.9).  Wind contributed 10.6% (6.6), coal 4.1% (2.6), and solar and other renewables, roughly 3% (1.9) of the remaining resource mix.

Oregon electricity production by fuel, MWh


Zero-carbon power resources represent a robust 62.3% of all power generation in the state, and that doesn’t include nuclear power.  The only utility-owned nuclear plant in the state’s history was PGE’s Trojan (1,261 MW) reactor in Columbia County that started operation in 1976 and was shut down only 16 years later in 1993 after cracks were found in the steam generator tubing.

Oregon electricity production by fuel as a percentage of total fuel mix, 1992-2019

The current Oregon state renewable portfolio standard (RPS), calling for 50% renewable power by 2050, is quite modest when compared to other states in the area like Washington (100% by 2045), California (100% by 2045), and Nevada (100% by 2050).  The most ambitious RPS goal currently announced is the District of Columbia’s target of 100% renewable energy by as soon as 2032.  The Oregon RPS counts renewable energy credits (RECs) from various Oregon-certified energy facilities, including renewable resources like wind, solar, wave and tidal, geothermal, certain biomass, landfill gas, and small-scale hydroelectric facilities.  Power from the state’s older large hydroelectric dams does not qualify for credit toward the state’s RPS, which was created to promote new renewable electricity resources.

Along with Oregon’s plan for 50% renewable energy by 2040, the state targets 80% below 1990 emissions (56.4 MTCO2e-) by 2050.  PGE has established the goal of reaching 1.65 MTCO2e- by 2050 – equal to the company’s proportionate share of the state’s economy-wide goal using 2010 as the base year.

PGE’s commitment to clean power

The company’s ‘Renewable Energy Program,’ the largest in the United States, has about 25% of its customers, with 100% of its power purchases coming from green energy sources. By 2022, the company expects the program to grow to 50%.  The company also runs one of the most successful electric vehicles charging programs, ‘Electric Avenue,’ that has resulted in vehicle charging of more than 2 million miles.  Along with these highly successful programs, PGE and joint venture partner NextEra Energy are developing the first-of-its-size Wheatridge Renewable Energy Center (380 MW), which integrates wind and solar resources with battery storage at a single location, to meet the company’s long-term clean energy goals.  Construction on the wind portion (300 MW) began in 2019 with plans to energize the farm in December 2020.  Construction and completion of the solar (50 MW) and battery storage (30 MW) components is planned for 2021.  When complete, the project, located in Morrow County, will be home to the largest solar farm in the state and one of the country’s largest battery storage facilities. The wind farm consists of 120 90-meter (ground to blade hub) GE turbines.  Portland General owns one-third (100 MW) of the wind farm while NextEra Energy owns 200 MW – all under a 30-year power purchase agreement (PPA) with PGE.  Once Wheatridge is fully operating, PGE will have roughly 1,000 MW of owned and contracted wind energy from five wind farms to serve their customers. 

Portland General Electric is the largest fully integrated investor-owned energy utility serving customers in the state of Oregon.  In 2019, retail power sales topped 17.3 million MWh representing 36.3% of the state’s total electricity sales.  The 130-year-old company serves approximately 1.9 million people (885,000+ customers) over a service territory that spans 4,000 square miles and 51 Oregon cities.  Berkshire Hathaway subsidiary, PacifiCorp, accounted for 27.4%, Umatilla Electric Cooperative (6.4%), Eugene Water & Electric Board (5.0%), and Central Lincoln Peoples Utility District (2.7%) rounded out the top five companies. 

The company owns or partially owns 16 power plants and has more than 1,250 miles of high-voltage transmission and nearly 28,000 miles of distribution power lines.  During 2019, nearly 54% of the total electricity production at PGE’s owned power plants was fueled by natural gas, while coal (27%), wind (10.3%), hydro (9%), and solar (< 1.0%) contributed the rest.  Natural gas has grown rapidly over the past five years, from contributing about 30.7% (34.2 million MWh) in 2014 to a robust 53.6% (8.4 million MWh) in 2019. 

Portland General Electric Company electricity production by fuel from owned units, MWh

PGE power supply in transition

The company owns five natural gas power plants, including two in Clatskanie, OR, Beaver (508 MW), and Port Westward Units 1-2 (636 MW), and two located near Boardman, OR, Carty (437 MW) and Coyote Springs (249 MW).  Along with these owned natural gas resources, PGE owns the Biglow Canyon Wind Farm (450 MW) in Sherman County, OR, and the Tucannon River wind Farm (267 MW) in Dayton, WA.  The company also owns four hydro plants (175 MW) along the Clackamas River, and one facility (18 MW) on the Willamette River, as well as various solar projects (46 MW) in the state. 

In terms of jointly owned facilities, PGE has contributions from two hydropower facilities (303 MW) on the Deschutes River and two coal-fueled power plants, including a 90% share in the recent shutdown of the Boardman Coal Plant (518 MW) in eastern Oregon. It also has a 20% share of Colstrip units 3-4 (296 MW) in Colstrip, Montana, that could shutter as early as 2027. 

Along with the company’s ownership in these power plants, about 970 MW of power purchase agreements round out the PGE power supply.

Only in-state coal plant retires

The Boardman Plant, located along the Carty Reservoir, is expected to be decommissioned and demolished by the end of 2023.  The relatively new Carty Generating Station (440 MW) combined-cycle natural gas-fueled power plant came online in 2016 to absorb some of the gap created by the absence of Boardman going forward.  The site has major transmission infrastructure that will continue to be used, including a 230 kV high-voltage power line from Boardman to Dalreed substation, 500-kV transformers, and a 500 kV power line running from the Grassland switchyard to Slatt substation.

Over the past two-decades, Boardman has been a large contributor of electricity – averaging 3.2 million MWh annually.  But over the past five years, the plant’s annual power output shrunk to an average of 2.0 million MWh, running below 40% capacity factor.  The highest output from Boardman occurred in 2003 when the plant ran at an annual average 93% capacity factor – generating a record 4.5 million MWh.  The plant averaged about 3.5 million tons of CO2 annually during the past two decades, but with the slowdown in operation in recent years, in 2019, CO2 emissions had fallen to 2.8 million tons.

Boardman Coal Plant electricity production (MWh) and CO2 emissions (tons) 

Today, PGE is home to the largest Renewable Energy Program in the United States and has one of the most successful electric vehicles charging programs in the country.  Adding to these efforts, the company, along with NextEra Energy, has broken ground on one of the largest hybrid renewable energy centers in the United States.  This all falls in step with PGE’s strategic plan to achieve their reliability and clean energy goals by investing in wind, solar, hydro capacity and through grid modernization efforts to make a smarter, more resilient grid, with an added focus on electrifying Oregon’s transportation sector.  For Portland General Electric, the future is bright and a whole lot greener.



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Dudley McFadden's picture
Dudley McFadden on Nov 10, 2020

The article explains PGE is building new carbon-emitting natural gas plants, under the headline “Portland General Electric on path to clean energy future.” And Oregon's electric power sector will still be 50% non-renewable twenty years from now in 2040.  OK.

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Nov 10, 2020

A fair point that terminology we're using matters and has been purposely PRed by people on all sides. Natural gas is cleaner than coal, but does that make it clean energy? And when do we consider that bridge fuel to be a bridge too far? 

Kent Knutson's picture
Kent Knutson on Nov 13, 2020

Dudley and Matt, thanks for your comments.  Note that large scale federal and public hydropower is not counted when considering the 50% renewable state goal by 2040.  Most of the electricity production in Oregon comes from these large carbon-free emission plants -- meaning the state produces a high percentage of carbon-free power already.  In the future, natural gas plays a significant role in replacing the retirement of Boardman but most of the planned resources for PGE will come from contracts with wind and solar providers and from participation in markets like Western EMI.  thx again for commenting.   

Dudley McFadden's picture
Dudley McFadden on Dec 4, 2020

Greater market particiaption in wind and solar will help to promote ongoing research and development in those sources, so that's a big plus.  Natural gas is cost-effective, which ought to be of importance to below-average income earners reviewing their electric bills, and the above-average income earners who are subsizing them.  Gas is reliable when families of the future need to charge their multiple electric vehicles, heat water, and heat their home on cold winter nights.  Even the most efficient solar farms produce zero energy a majority of the time, especially in the northern latitudes in winter.  PGE seems on an aggressive but reasonable and responsible track, recongizing that some efficient gas generation provides societal benefits.

Kent Knutson's picture

Thank Kent for the Post!

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