Clean Energy Legislation Is Not Nearly As Radical As Oregon Would Have You Believe

Oregon just passed what the media is heralding as one of the most “wildly ambitious” clean energy bills, called the Clean Electricity and Coal Transition Plan.  It has two salient points:

  1. State utilities will cease using coal generated power by 2030; and
  2. 50% of the state’s power will be generated by renewable sources by 2040.

As sound bites, these points seem like major legislative achievements and terrifically ambitious goals for the environmental movement.  In reality, however, neither aspect of the legislation is influential or significant.

According to the Oregon Department of Energy, Oregon gets about one third of its electricity from coal.  That state has only one remaining coal plant, which is scheduled to end operation in four years.  Most of the energy Oregon receives from coal comes from coal plants in Utah, Montana, and Wyoming that Oregon’s utilities own shares in.  The bill does not actually require the utilities to divest their shares in these plants, but simply that they acquire Oregon’s electricity from other sources.

Shifting the source of 1/3 of Oregon’s electricity will be costly and will likely impact consumer—something the Oregon Public Utility Commission realized early on in the legislative process.   Thus, the commission insisted that the bill contain a measure that would allow the Oregon Public Utility Commission to intercede and potentially halt the shift away from coal if electricity prices seem to be rising too quickly or if the commission thinks that the utilities are not applying cost-effective electricity procurement strategies.  This measure essentially gives the utilities a way out if non-coal sources are too expensive, effectively killing the anti-coal aspect of the legislation.

In terms of renewable resources, Oregon already generates 49.5% of its electricity from renewable sources.  43.9% comes from hydroelectric generating dams, the most cost-effective form of renewable energy today.  Windmills generate another 5.6%.  For Oregon to reach the 50% renewable mark, all it would need is to increase its solar generation (currently at 0.07%) or its wind generation just a slight amount.  (Nuclear-generated energy accounts for 3.21%, but that is not a renewable source).

All told, Oregon’s environmental movement can pat itself on the back for achieving a public relations victory that will, in the end, result in almost no change whatsoever.

The important point to remember here is that the most cost-effective and widely used form of renewable energy in the United States is still hydroelectric power.  When states (particularly those blessed with abundant and fast moving water sources) pass clean energy legislation with quantifiable targets, look for utilities to rely even more heavily on hydroelectric power than on solar and wind.  The public has been led to believe that wind and solar are the present and future of renewable energy generation.  However, water actually accounts for most of the renewable energy generated in the United States today.  Shiny solar farms and giant windmills make headlines, but dams actually make energy.