Oregon Bill Proposes Ban on Coal-Generated Electricity by 2035

Published February 11, 2016

In a vote that could have far-reaching implications for Oregon’s residential and commercial electricity users, the state’s legislature will soon consider a bill sponsored by state Rep. Jeff Barker (D-Aloha) and state Rep. Brian Clem (D-Salem) that would eliminate electricity generated by coal-fired power plants from the state’s power grid by 2035.

The Portland Tribune reports Oregon’s two investor-owned utilities, Pacific Power and Portland General Electric (PGE), both of which own out-of-state coal facilities, support the bill. The utilities agreed to back the legislation in exchange for environmentalists withdrawing a November ballot initiative that, if approved by voters, would impose an even more rapid phase-out.

PGE and Pacific Power agreed to phase out coal by 2035 and pledged, rather than replacing coal with natural-gas-fired electricity, half the electricity they sell in Oregon by 2040 will come from non-hydro renewable sources.

The two utilities were successful in lobbying to have included in the bill a provision that would allow them to charge ratepayers for building electric vehicle charging stations and a provision that would make it easier for them to finance large-scale solar projects in Oregon.

‘Subsidizing Uneconomic Renewables’

Coal-generated power plants currently supply Oregon with 33.4 percent of the state’s electricity, while non-hydro renewables, such as wind and solar, account for only five percent of the state’s power. As a result, analysts say the elimination of coal, even if it is assumed improvements in the efficiency of wind and solar power will occur during the next two decades, could result in a substantial shortfall in power available to Oregon’s homes and businesses.

John Charles, president and CEO of the Cascade Policy Institute, notes both wind and solar facilities are highly dependent on favorable weather conditions to generate electricity. Charles says during the “peak periods” of winter, when utilities must supply the maximum amount of reliable electricity, weather-related interruptions of wind and solar power can play havoc with the electric grid.

“Under this deal, ratepayers will be forced to spend … uncalculated amounts of money subsidizing uneconomic renewable energy facilities, and then [they will] have to pay a second time to maintain and operate natural gas-fired generators necessary to back up unreliable wind and solar plants,” Charles said. 

Threatening Electric Reliability

“Efforts to wean Oregon off coal do not make sense,” said John Eick, director of the Energy, Environment, and Agriculture Task Force at the American Legislative Exchange Council. “Coal can provide something to Oregonians wind and solar currently cannot: continuous, reliable, baseload power that is immune to variable weather conditions.”

Tom Tanton, director of science and technology assessment at the Energy and Environment Law Institute, says Oregon’s lawmakers should reject efforts to shut down coal-fired power plants.

“The Oregon legislature should acknowledge the importance of coal [in the creation of] affordable and reliable electricity, as well as tremendous improvements in efficiency and cleanliness of modern coal plants, and not try to shut down over one-third of Oregon’s power,” Tanton said.

Bonner R. Cohen, Ph.D. ([email protected]) is a senior fellow at the National Center for Public Policy Research.