What the PUC?

350PDX’s very own Mia Reback cut straight through the technical jargon to cap off various environmental and citizen groups’ testimony concerning PGE’s disastrous energy plan at the most recent PUC meeting in Salem. “Where in this process are you adequately accounting for the full costs and risks of fossil fuels?” she asked, and she was speaking up for all Oregonians demanding clean energy now.

If acronyms and wonky energy policy-speak make your head hurt, let me sort through the RECs and PTCs and give it to you straight: PGE wants to build two natural gas fueled power plants in Boardman Oregon to supply power for decades­–locking Oregonians into reliance on fossil fuels at precisely a time when clean energy is becoming exponentially more available and affordable. Why would they do this you ask? Well, I asked the same thing and was met with chuckles: because PGE is guaranteed a 10% return on their investments; they are assuring their stakeholders profits, but at the expense of our environment and health.

Here’s where the PUC comes in. The Public Utility commission is made up of three citizens appointed by the governor whose job it is to manage risk and return for investor owned utilities, and last Thursday I accompanied a group of 350PDX activists to Salem to watch them in action. Despite the dry subject matter the room was filled with the red shirts of 350PDX.

I was warned the meeting would be boring and incomprehensible, and at certain points it was, but even I could understand what the commissioners were concerned about as they asked PGE to clarify its position. “We want to make sure you’re taking every action to preclude irreversible decisions,” commissioner John Savage said at one point, and as the meeting continued, it became clear PGE was not.

The commissioners and then the PUC staff voiced numerous concerns surrounding PGE’s Integrated Resource Plan or IRP as they call it, and although things got super technical at points, several main themes emerged. One issue is doubt over the fundamental question of how much energy is even going to be needed in five, ten, or thirty years–there is a difference between the need projected by PUC staff and PGE’s projections, which calls into question PGE’s most basic assumptions. Then there is the question of how to meet that need. With so many uncertainties around the rapidly changing energy market, the potential for conservation, the option of short and medium term flexible supplies, and the growing availability of new resources, the PUC staff concluded that the IRP does not meet the specified guidelines on flexibility, and the commissioners said they would like to see an action plan that signals PGE is not “determined to get a gas plant.”

Things got a bit livelier with the “lightning round” as one commissioner called it, which is when the “interveners” expressed their concerns about the plan and the process. One after another, representatives from CUB, Invenergy, ICNU, NW Energy Coalition, NIPSY, Renewable Northwest, the Sierra Club, and my personal favorite–two “PGE ratepayers and retired scientists” who, “optimistically call themselves a task force”–spoke out. Almost all of them addressed the same concerns that the PUC and its staff had, as well as bringing up other issues, including: the failure to address long term financial risks; the implicit bias towards utility ownership; no new analysis by PGE on renewable sources or how various renewable resources act together; the option to rent rather than buy gas in the short term; the social cost of CO2 which is estimated at $40/ton; the fact that new technologies will become cheaper and cheaper while fossil fuels become more and more expensive… you get the idea; if PGE’s IRP were an umbrella, you would be soaking wet because of all the holes in it!

“The analysis is rigged in favor of a natural gas plant,” Tyler Comings of Synapse, a firm representing the Sierra Club summed up succinctly.

And here’s where our part comes in; energy policy might be confusing and convoluted and full of crazy abbreviations and terms, but our message is simple: we don’t need to be stuck relying on fossil fuels, we want clean energy in Oregon, we want it now, and now is the time to get it–even all those energy wonks can tell you that.

Written by: Kathryn Lipari