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Oregon's biggest utility ramps up clean energy plans to comply with tougher carbon pollution standards

A wind turbine at Biglow Canyon Wind Farm, owned by Portland General Electric, in Sherman County, Oregon. Courtesy of PGE
Courtesy of PGE
A wind turbine at Biglow Canyon Wind Farm, owned by Portland General Electric, in Sherman County, Oregon. Courtesy of PGE

Portland General Electric is planning to nearly triple its use of clean energy by 2030 on its way to meeting Oregon's new mandate to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from electricity to zero by 2040.

Portland General Electric rolled out new plans on Friday to nearly triple its use of clean energy by 2030.

The utility is facing an ambitious new state mandate to eliminate greenhouse gas emissions from its electricity by 2040.

A bill lawmakers passed earlier this year requires Oregon’s two largest utilities, PGE and Pacific Power, to cut emissions by 80 percent in the next 10 years.

PGE filed new plans with the Oregon Public Utility Commission to update the power grid and purchase 1,000 megawatts of clean energy capacity through a request for proposals.

Brett Sims, vice president of strategy, regulation and energy supply for PGE, said clean energy capacity will include adding renewables like wind or solar as well as storage options like batteries.

Meanwhile, the company will also be building out a two-way power grid that can deliver more electricity from residential homes through solar panels, thermostats, hot water heaters and electric vehicle batteries.

Sims said that will offer the utility more flexibility in how it distributes electricity in the future.

“We’ve got to have more clean energy, and we’ve got to add clean resources with urgency to decarbonize and address climate change,” he said in an interview. “But at the same time the system has to remain reliable. And it has to be affordable.”

The Carty Generating Station in Boardman is a natural gas power plant owned by PGE.
Michael Durham /
PGE closed its coal-fired power plant in Boardman, Ore., last year.

During the heat wave earlier this year, he said, the company was able to reduce the amount of electricity needed by 62 megawatts by dialing down the thermostats of customers who had agreed to a two-way system.

“That’s the equivalent of powering about 25,000 homes,” Sims said.

To build a flexible system with zero emissions, he said, PGE is planning to expand its capacity to use distributed resources like residential thermostats to reduce customer demand on extremely hot or cold days. Customers would be incentivized to opt into programs that would allow PGE to tap into their thermostats, water heaters and electric vehicle batteries.

“This is all hands on deck. We’re all in this together,” Sims said. “We’re moving with urgency and moving with purpose and intention. We believe we will get there.”

Over time, Sims said, the utility will be using less and less electricity from coal and natural gas plants that are easy to dial up and down. PGE closed its coal-fired power plant in Boardman last year and has plans to sever ties with the Colstrip coal-fired power plant in Montana. It still owns several natural gas power plants that it would use less frequently and possibly convert to renewable or clean alternatives in the future.

Dave Robertson, vice president of public affairs for PGE, said everything in the utility’s system will have to work together better in the future to avoid power shortages and price increases as the company shifts to 100% clean electricity.

“We’re pretty excited about it,” he said. “We know that the climate imperative must be met, and the only way to do that is to do things differently.”

The company also filed a request with the Oregon Public Utility Commission for a one-year extension of its integrated resource plan, a required two-year outline of how the utility plans to meet its obligations to its customers.

Sims said the extra time will allow the company to gather more public input on its vision for the future. The company plans to release that plan to the public in March for approval in 2023.

Copyright 2021 Oregon Public Broadcasting. To see more, visit Oregon Public Broadcasting.

Cassandra Profita