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Cost of renewable mandate to ratepayers still unvetted

Public Utilities Commission says it doesn't have enough information to assess cost of energy bill to Oregon ratepayers.

By Hillary Borrud

Capital Bureau

Published on February 17, 2016 12:12PM

Last changed on February 17, 2016 3:09PM

SALEM — Oregon lawmakers are on track to pass a bill that would double the state’s renewable energy mandate, before state utility regulators finish vetting the potential cost to consumers.

Lawmakers and Gov. Kate Brown instead relied so far on cost estimates by the utilities that helped to write the bill, which projected the legislation would increase ratepayers’ bills by an average of roughly 1 percent annually.

The situation adds to questions about who is looking out for electricity consumers, as the Legislature moves to pass the bill quickly during the short 35-day session.

The governor did not respond on Wednesday morning to questions about whether the cost of the bill mattered, and if she would sign the bill without cost vetting by state regulators.

“The Governor’s Office has encouraged the (Public Utility Commission) to evaluate the bill and actively engage in the public process, which the (Public Utility Commission) pursued by providing testimony, crafting amendments, and holding its own public hearing,” Brown’s press secretary Chris Pair wrote in an email Wednesday morning. “We generally do not comment publicly on the Governor’s position on a bill in advance of its passing both houses or her legal counsel’s review for legal sufficiency and constitutionality that every bill receives. That said, the Governor is committed to policies that increase the availability of renewable energy and address issues around Oregonians’ investment in electricity produced by coal and believes HB 4036 may be one way to make a meaningful impact.”

Michael Dougherty, chief operating officer of the Public Utility Commission of Oregon, said earlier this week the Public Utility Commission had not received enough information from PacifiCorp and Portland General Electric, the two investor owned utilities that helped craft the bill, to vet the utilities’ cost projections. Dougherty wrote in an email that Portland General Electric had provided only “piecemeal” information and PacifiCorp had not provided any of the information the Public Utility Commission requested.

“Unfortunately, we have not received (what we consider) adequate data from the utilities to substantiate or refute the projections (annual 1 percent to 1.5 percent increase in rates) provided to the committee by the utilities,” Dougherty wrote in an email Tuesday morning. By Wednesday morning, Dougherty said the commission had received more information from Portland General Electric but he had not yet ascertained what it was or how useful it might be.

Ry Schwark, a spokesman for PacifiCorp, disagreed and said much of the information the Public Utility Commission requested was available in public reports. “My understanding is we’ve given them everything they’ve asked for,” Schwark said.

Steve Corson, a spokesman for Portland General Electric, said the utility’s first priority was to prepare for a presentation to the Public Utility Commission on the bill in late January. “And then turned to the data request,” Corson said. “The other thing I would observe just in general is data requests are not simple things.” Public utility commissioners raised concerns privately and at the meeting in late January, in particular that the bill would be expensive for consumers but do little to reduce carbon emissions.

The Oregon House already voted 39-20 on Monday to pass House Bill 4036, and it is currently scheduled for a public hearing Wednesday afternoon at the Senate Committee on Business and Transportation. The committee could vote as soon as Monday on whether to send the bill to the full Senate for a floor vote. Gov. Kate Brown has said publicly that she is still considering whether to support the bill, but emails released by the state showed her administration worked behind the scenes to help the bill pass in the Legislature, The Oregonian reported on Wednesday.

House Bill 4036 would require PacifiCorp and Portland General Electric to use renewable power sources such as wind and solar to serve at least 50 percent of their customers’ energy demand in Oregon by 2040. The current state mandate is for 25 percent renewable energy by 2025.

The bill would also require the investor-owned utilities to stop using coal to serve Oregon customers, but there are questions about how much the bill would actually do to impact the phase-out of coal power in Oregon.

State Sen. Lee Beyer, D-Springfield, originally requested the Public Utility Commission review House Bill 4036. Beyer did not respond to a question this week about whether he expects the commission to finish vetting the legislation before it receives a vote in the Senate. It also remains to be seen whether the Senate will ask the Public Utility Commission to provide its perspective on the bill, something lawmakers in the House did not do.

“At the House Energy and Environment Committee, we were not requested to provide testimony,” Dougherty wrote in an email. A representative was on hand, however, to answer questions

The Capital Bureau is a collaboration between EO Media Group and Pamplin Media Group. Hillary Borrud can be reached at 503-364-4431 or hborrud@eomediagroup.com.

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