In 2020, Oregon’s electricity providers will be required to produce a record 20 percent of their energy from renewable sources, like solar and wind. These renewables are replacing fossil fuels－and their greenhouse gas emissions. But total emissions in the state are still on the rise.
Throughout the northwest it’s easy to see a change in the way energy is produced. Solar panels are more commonplace, especially in southern Oregon and northern California where there’s lots of sunshine. In other parts of the northwest, wind turbines are a common sight. And electricity from both wind and solar is routinely fed to the power grid, and it produces zero greenhouse gas emissions.
This new emphasis on renewables is part of an Oregon law passed in 2007 that includes a plan known as the Renewable Portfolio Standard, or RPS. It requires utilities to get more of their electricity from renewable sources.
Fred Heutte with the non-profit Northwest Energy Coalition credits the RPS for remarkable gains in clean energy production.
"I think the record shows pretty convincingly — not just here, but around the country — that, as public policies go, this one has been very successful," he says.
In fact, Oregon and other states have surpassed their clean energy goals. But, despite this shift toward renewables, the state’s greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise.
Angus Duncan is Chair of the Oregon Global-Warming Commission. He explains why greenhouse gas reductions from electricity production aren’t translating to lower overall greenhouse gas emission levels.
"The electric utilities are maybe 30 to 35 percent of our greenhouse gas emissions, and those are declining," he says. "But something close to 40 percent of greenhouse gas emissions comes from transportation. And that has been increasing."
Duncan says private automobiles, and people’s driving habits, are a major part of that rise in emissions.
"People are driving larger internal-combustion engine cars, they’re driving SUVs, they’re driving more miles, and our emissions from transportation keep going up."
Fred Heutte adds that passenger cars aren’t the only culprit. But total emissions from transportation are definitely impacting Oregon’s reduction efforts.
"We are missing significantly our greenhouse gas goals for the same year 2020, " he says. "and at least right now, if we don’t amp up our efforts we’re not going to hit our 2035 and our 2050 goals, and neither is anybody else. So, it’s important that states like Oregon set an example by doing what we say we’re going to do."
Angus Duncan says taking an approach similar to the RPS with transportation emissions could be a big help in bringing down the total greenhouse gas number.
"As we look at the bigger climate picture, I think the renewable portfolio standard concept is a very clear example of how a clear and well-developed public policy can really succeed for both energy and climate."
California already has laws that target greenhouse gas emissions from transportation, and is the only state that does. And there are a handful of regional efforts underway that do the same. Oregon’s most recent policy attempt, called cap and trade, failed to pass in the 2019 legislative session. Supporters have promised to bring it back in 2020.
Meanwhile, renewable energy continues to gain ground in Oregon. But as long as we rely mostly on fossil fuels to move people and goods, we’re not likely to head-off the worst impacts of climate change.