A Big Dam Fight Ahead

Opponents of Oregon's Green Energy Law are seeking a major change.

In 2007, Oregon lawmakers decided to address global warming by moving the state aggressively away from burning coal and natural gas to produce electricity.

They required big utilities to generate 25 percent of their electricity from green sources, such as wind, solar and biomass, by 2025.

Now, that law is under attack. 

A group calling itself Oregonians for Renewable Power wants to change the law so utilities can count electricity from dams toward their green energy goals—even though the dams were built decades before the law was passed.

"Hydro is one of Oregon's historic strengths," says lobbyist Paul Cosgrove. "It's abundant, relatively inexpensive power. It doesn't make sense from a public policy perspective not to include it in the standard."

But the law's defenders say that misses the point: The standard was intended to increase the amount of green energy in Oregon, not simply count what already existed.

"It's like signing up to run a marathon and then asking to count 10 miles you ran last week against the 26 miles you are supposed to run today," says Rep. Jules Bailey (D-Portland), chairman of the House Energy and Environment Committee.

Opponents want lawmakers to grant utilities an exemption for hydro power, and they're posed to push a 2014 ballot initiative, called the "Affordable Renewable Energy Act," before voters if they don't get their way. Cosgrove is a chief petitioner.

Many utilities originally opposed the green mandate, but lawmakers largely satisfied their concerns about the costs of new energy sources, such as wind and solar. Scott Bolton, a lobbyist for PacifiCorp, says Oregon's investor-owned utilities and the associations of publicly owned utilities ended up supporting the law or remained neutral. 

The new mandate and a subsequent energy tax credit program caused an explosion of wind farms to crop up east of the Cascades. Wind now accounts for 4.3 percent of the state's electricity, state figures show. Coal still accounts for 35.5 percent and natural gas for another 16.2 percent. 

Today, as in 2007, the biggest single source of electricity in Oregon is hydropower from federal dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers. The dams provide nearly 39 percent of Oregon's electricity.

But the Oregon law counts only sources of electricity built after 1995—long after the federal dams were in.

Rachel Shimshak, executive director of Renewable Northwest Project, a Portland advocacy group, says Cosgrove is trying to roll back Oregon's most effective effort to address global warming. "The result of this ballot measure would be to wipe out, gut and render completely useless the renewable standard," she says.

The politics around the initiative are complex—and murky.

Cosgrove won't say who is backing the initiative. His group, Oregonians for Renewable Power, has not yet filed any financial disclosure forms. "I don't want to reveal any of the members at this point," he says.

Cosgrove lobbies for the Umatilla Electric Cooperative, a 10,000-customer public utility in Eastern Oregon. Umatilla is a powerhouse in the capitol, spending more on lobbying than Portland General Electric, which has 80 times as many customers.

This session, Umatilla is asking for a legislative exemption from the green mandate. Large server farms are moving into Umatilla's territory, and the utility wants relief from the stringent requirements for renewable energy the increased power demand will trigger. (The requirements for small utilities are less stringent than for PGE and PacifiCorp, but they get stricter over time.) 

Cosgrove says the success or failure of Umatilla's legislation, House Bill 2108, could determine whether the ballot measure proceeds. "We'd prefer to resolve the issue at the Legislature,” Cosgrove says. 

Renewable-energy mandates are under fire nationally. The American Legislative Exchange Council, a conservative umbrella group better known as ALEC, has urged their rollback. Last year, The Oregonian identified Cosgrove as ALEC's private-sector co-chair in Oregon.

Cosgrove denies his initiative is part of a coordinated effort with ALEC. "We have not had any communication with anybody outside the state or any organization outside the state at all,” Cosgrove says. 

He says his group also has nothing to do with a television ad campaign extolling hydroelectricity. The ads send viewers to a website paid for by Northwest River Partners, whose executive director, Terry Flores, did not return WW's calls. 

Gov. John Kitzhaber, who would have to sign Umatilla's bill to make it law, opposes changes to the state's green energy mandate.

"The existing [law] is working as intended and should not be watered down," Kitzhaber said through a spokeswoman. "We want to encourage even more renewable energy in Oregon, and I see no reason in the foreseeable future to change the law.” 

Willamette Week's journalism is funded, in part, by our readers. Your help supports local, independent journalism that informs, educates, and engages our community. Become a WW supporter.