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Questions linger on Oregon's coal-free future

The Astorian

Every day, electricity crackles across power lines hanging over the sparsely populated counties of Umatilla, Morrow, Gilliam and Sherman that border the Columbia River. With the ongoing global climate crisis, the debate about how this electricity can be produced by cleaner, renewable energy continues to heat up.

Nowhere is this more obvious than with the case of Portland General Electric's attempts to shift away from coal-generated electricity. As the state's last coal-fired plant closed last week, utilities are facing a complex road ahead to close the gap between renewable and nonrenewable generation.

PGE, along with NextEra Energy - one of North America's leading renewable energy companies - is building the Wheatridge Renewable Energy facility in Morrow County. The 380-megawatt facility will employ wind, solar and battery storage as one of the nation's largest emissions-free electricity producers. It will open this year to power 100,000 homes.

Despite breaking records for Oregon's largest renewable energy facility, however, it will not fully cover the roughly 600 megawatts produced by the now shuttered Boardman coal-fired plant. This raises a series of questions about how utilities will fulfill the needs of Oregonians while promoting a cleaner, sustainable future for energy generation.

PGE and Oregon's other providers, such as PacifiCorp, have several avenues forward in the coming years as the effects of climate change continue to ravage parts of the state.

Declining cost of renewable energy

The most popular option for Oregon, and most beneficial for combating climate change, is expanding the state's renewable energy infrastructure. It is likely the best, cheapest and safest option that utilities can undertake.

However, it comes with its own set of limitations and challenges.

As technology advances, Oregon utilities have recognized the evolution of the industry as the costs of renewables decrease and consumer appetite increases. Over the past decade, the cost of solar energy generation has fallen 89% and wind power costs have been trimmed by 70%, according to Lazard's 2019 Levelized Cost of Energy Analysis.

These decreases have made renewables more competitive with traditional nonrenewable energy sources such as coal. In 2019, wind cost roughly $41 per megawatt hour, compared with $109 for coal.

And, while 2016 legislation set a goal of 50% new renewable energy production in the state by 2040, many experts believe it can reach an even higher percentage.

"Most people who work in the electricity industry agree that anywhere from 80-90% of renewable energy is totally doable," said Rebecca Smith, a senior policy analyst at the Oregon Department of Energy. "That last 10% is where you see a lot more difference of opinion between people," she said.

Bryson Robertson, associate professor of civil and construction engineering at Oregon State University and co-director of the Pacific Marine Energy Center, agrees.

"Fifty percent is low. Like, that's not a high bar so Oregon should nail that," said Robertson. "When I start to have misgivings is when people say 100% because getting up to 80 or 90 is actually not incredibly difficult - it's that last 10% that is incredibly difficult," he said.

According to Robertson, getting beyond 80% to 90% renewable energy would be expensive to implement, offers diminishing returns and puts the system's resiliency at risk.

Switching entirely to renewable energy would put the state's electrical grid at risk of not meeting Oregon's electrical demands, according to industry experts.

Weather patterns play a role

"You cannot turn the wind on and off when you need it, or the sun," said Steve Corson, a spokesperson for PGE. "They are variable. Their output may come and go during any given day and we need other resources that we can turn on and off to ensure reliable supply for customers."

The diminishing returns and reliability factor of renewables force utilities to rely on energy sources that can be stockpiled in case of emergencies and called upon when needed. These "dispatchable resources," such as coal or natural gas, can be used to stabilize the electricity system if the renewable energy system fails to generate enough power, according to Corson.

In the future, however, reliance on dispatchable resources could decline with a diversified electrical grid and new technologies that meet consumer demand every second of every day. These new capabilities add another safety net to meeting the needs of Oregonians.

New technologies

Along with the increasing amount of renewable energy, utilities are developing technologies to expand the electrical grid to keep the lights on when consumer demand exceeds the ability of generation.

These "demand response programs" rely on greater interaction with consumers to build a more intricate electrical system.

For example, many appliances, such as water heaters, can act as a sort of battery.

"Down in my basement I have a 50-gallon tank of hot water," said Corson. "That is actually a kind of battery because most of the time during the day I don't need 50 gallons of hot water, but my hot water heater is down there keeping that 50 gallons topped off all the time anyway."

Demand response programs would put a control on water heaters and if demand for power outstrips the generating capacity or if power gets exceptionally expensive, utilities could send a signal out to hundreds of thousands of water heaters throughout their service territory that switch them off for five minutes.

"For any one water heater, that's not going to produce a noticeable difference for the people in that home or business," Corson said. "They're still going to have hot water, that 50-gallon tank is still full. But, add up the electricity required for that 100,000 water heaters over five minutes and it's a significant chunk of electricity."

This system could enable utilities to dramatically reduce carbon emissions. PGE is aiming to reduce emissions by more than 80% by 2050, said Corson.

"It's a big change," he said.

In Oregon, where the natural environment is flush with renewable energy possibilities, demand response programs can be used to bolster the system. But they can also be used in other states with less natural renewable energy resources or policies.

"It's good business for the utility. It helps them from having to go out on the spot market and buy electricity when it's really, really expensive or having to build more resources than they need," Smith said. "It just makes sense to do from a cost perspective."

"It's not a question of whether or not we can do it at this point, it's just which is the best way that's going to be most affordable," Smith said.

Buying out of state nonrenewables

Some regions of Oregon still rely heavily on coal power. According to 2018 numbers, the most recent available, Oregon's resource mix, which consists of in-state and out-of-state generation, is made up of just under 25% coal. Much of this comes from Colstrip - a coal plant located in Montana - that is partly owned by PGE and PacifiCorp.

"In the case of Bend, an area where people have a fairly high amount of environmental proclivities, over half their energy still comes from coal," said Brian Skeahan, director of the Community Renewable Energy Association.

However, Oregon's 2016 plan that ended coal generation in the state also prohibits purchasing coal-produced electricity from out of state sources after 2035. PGE and PacifiCorp will not be able to charge Oregonians for power produced by Colstrip after 2035. But, they can still buy other nonrenewable energy, such as natural gas, from other states.

One possible move the utilities can make is to fill the gap by buying energy from other states that have less restrictive energy generation regulations in place. This purchased power could come from nonrenewable energy sources, could require long-term contracts and be more expensive as utilities would be buying energy off the open market.

PGE affirmed that it would not replace nonrenewable energy with more nonrenewables from out of state, instead committing to seek nonemitting resources.

According to Robertson, California is generating so much solar that it's starting to cost them money. And, since the western half of North America functions under one electricity grid, extra power that is generated needs to be used. This benefits Oregon utilities as they can buy very cheap electricity from California in the summer.


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