Legislature Addresses Clean Energy, Wildfires

CEO Dave MarkhamA sweltering June Saturday in Salem, where temperatures soared to an all-time high of 103 degrees, seemed a fitting backdrop to conclude an extraordinary state legislative session.

The state capitol’s doors were closed to the general public throughout the session due to the pandemic, leaving legislators to conduct much of their business virtually.

Under these unusual circumstances, the Legislature passed significant bills that will affect the utility industry for years to come.

After a decade of numerous attempts to pass significant clean-energy legislation in various forms, enough votes materialized to pull House Bill 2021—100% Clean Energy for All—over the finish line.

HB 2021 requires investor-owned utilities to transition to a 100% clean energy portfolio by 2040, with intermediate targets of 80% by 2030 and 90% by 2035. Consumer-owned utilities are exempt due to heavy reliance on the Bonneville Power Administration’s hydropower, which is 100% renewable energy.

The goal raises serious questions about long-term resource adequacy needs. Wind and solar should play an instrumental role in an all-of-the-above energy resources strategy, but are insufficient to serve as the backbone to the state’s energy supply. They cannot generate power consistently, often when needed most.

Yet this is where HB 2021 is taking us. One of the bill’s provisions prohibits sitings of any new gas-fired generation. No new future natural gas facilities, combined with efforts to remove the lower Snake River dams—if successful—will create an oncoming energy crisis to meet demand.

Natural gas and the lower Snake River dams play an instrumental role in delivering power in the Northwest when wind and solar aren’t available. Last year’s ice storms in the Willamette Valley and the most recent heatwaves demonstrate the need for these resources to serve as a backstop to intermittent renewable generation to prevent blackouts.

With excessive heat early and drought conditions, Oregon faces a fire season potentially surpassing last year’s historic wildfires. The Legislature took bipartisan action to beef up the state’s response to wildfire mitigation efforts, including requiring investor-owned utilities to submit to the Public Utilities Commission a wildfire mitigation plan by the end of this year. Electric cooperatives must do so by June 2022. CEC updated and formalized its plan in 2020.

The legislation includes $185 million for thinning forests and additional firefighting capacity. It compliments Gov. Kate Brown’s June executive order, which preemptively declared a state of emergency due to the imminent threat of wildfires across the state. It authorizes the Department of Forestry and the Office of Emergency Management to use other state agencies’ personnel, equipment and facilities to respond to wildfire emergencies.

CEC is doing its part, too. We continue to upgrade our system and implement our vegetation management plan, including removing hazardous trees and brush that could ignite a wildfire from a downed power line. We stand prepared to execute a Public Safety Power Shutoff in high-risk fire areas should extreme weather conditions warrant it.

Perhaps collectively, we can take the “extra” out of extraordinary for the remainder of this year.