The latest proposal by the Donald Trump Administration to sell transmission lines owned by the Bonneville Power Administration may stir economic uncertainty for Umatilla and Morrow counties, according to the local Umatilla Electric Cooperative.
Robert Echenrode, UEC general manager, said he is not sure what such a deal would look like, but would inevitably carry questions that could slow down the rate of customer growth within the co-op service territory.
“(BPA) has certainly been a life support for us during our growth,” Echenrode said. “We would hate to disrupt that momentum we have.”
This is not the first time the government has suggested privatizing the agency’s assets. The concept dates as far back as the Nixon administration, Echenrode said, and seems to rear its head again from time to time.
UEC, which serves more than 14,000 accounts from Boardman to the Blue Mountains, buys the majority of its power wholesale from BPA, with nearly 85 percent generated by large hydroelectric dams on the Columbia River. The co-op signed its first contract with BPA in 1942, just five years after the agency was established by Congress.
“That’s 75 years of partnership,” Echenrode said. “They provide stability we might not otherwise see from a private enterprise.”
And, unlike some other federal programs, Echenrode said BPA does not subsist on government handouts, Rather, it provides a dependable, self-sustaining service that members like UEC are more than happy to support.
Without that dependability, Echenrode said industries like data centers and food processors that have arrived in Eastern Oregon — and which require a tremendous amount of electricity — may think twice about locating in the future or expanding their operations.
Oregon lawmakers have loudly denounced selling off BPA transmission to a private party. Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden has said BPA is “a key part of Oregon’s economic future, and selling most of it to the highest bidder would strangle the power supply for businesses and stretch the wages of working families in the Northwest.”
Wyden recently voted against Dan Brouillete, President Trump’s nominee for deputy secretary of energy, because Brouillete did not commit to keeping BPA in public ownership.
“I cannot support a nominee who won’t even say whether he opposes a proposal that would hike energy prices for Northwest customers who have invested in a system that runs successfully on its own,” Wyden said.
Greg Walden, Oregon’s only Republican congressman, also signed his name to a letter along with 14 other members of Congress voicing their opposition to the BPA proposal. The letter, which was sent to Secretary of Energy Rick Perry and Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney, said selling transmission assets would harm individuals and businesses while undermining investment across the Northwest.
If a deal were made to sell BPA infrastructure, Echenrode said co-ops would likely argue that they are entitled to capacity on the system, since they have helped pay for its upkeep over the decades. He also questioned whether a third party would be able and willing to continue expanding the system to accommodate further growth.
Echenrode said UEC is working closely with the Oregon Rural Electric Cooperative Association and National Rural Electric Cooperative Association to continue lobbying the issue.
“We just want to make sure, if there is some traction gained, where it’s coming from and what their intentions are,” he said.
House Bill 3456
Meanwhile in Salem, a bill has passed the Oregon House of Representatives that would allow utilities to build solar farms on high-value farmland, provided the land is not within an irrigation district and does not otherwise have a water right.
The issue arose earlier this year, when UEC sought to expand its Moyer-Tolles Solar Station east of Umatilla. However, since the property is located within the Columbia Valley American Viticulture Area and is thus defined as “high-value farmland,” state law requires a special exception for any solar array larger than 12 acres.
“Our needs are greater than those limits,” Echenrode said.
UEC did ultimately secure an exception for the project from the Umatilla County Board of Commissioners, but faced going through the same process in the future in order to meet Oregon’s renewable energy mandate. The co-op has estimated it will need 100 megawatts of solar generation by 2025 to hit the benchmark.
Rep. Greg Smith (R-Heppner) sponsored the legislation to clear a path for UEC. The bill passed Wednesday by a vote of 54-4, with nays from Reps. Mike Nearman (R-Independence), Bill Post (R-Keizer), E. Werner Reschke (R-Klamath Falls) and Sherrie Sprenger (R-Scio).
Echenrode said he was pleased to see the legislation move forward to address what he described as shortcomings in the state’s renewable portfolio standard.
“It will hopefully be in the Senate soon enough,” Echenrode said.
Contact George Plaven at email@example.com or 541-966-0825.