Environmental disasters and new federal policy spike demand for renewable energy.
When Gov. Kate Brown issued Executive Order 20-04 in March 2020, directing state agencies to create new rules limiting companies’ carbon emissions, she was on the wrong side of the national moment.
One year after taking office in 2017, the Trump administration pulled the U.S. out of the Paris Agreement, the legally binding international treaty on climate change, and issued a flurry of executive orders rolling back Obama and Clinton-era environmental regulations -- 74 in total. For every regulation that was put into place, two were eliminated.
But times change. In addition to rejoining the Paris Agreement, the Biden administration has followed the lead of governors like Kate Brown and Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker. The president issued a series of executive orders directing state agencies, including the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and the Department of the Treasury, to pursue a regulatory and economic agenda, placing the U.S. on a path to carbon neutrality by 2050.
In addition to the federal government’s climate agenda, recent environmental catastrophes, such as this year’s Feb. 14 blizzard that downed Texas’s power grid, have made even more companies view renewable energy as a good investment. After overcoming legal challenges, Oregon's environmental standards serve the state well as demand and federal support for renewable energy increase.
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Energy Storage Systems, a Wilsonville manufacturer of iron-flow batteries capable of storing renewable energy, has seen increased interest in its product since the new administration and the Texas freeze.
“ESS has observed even greater demand from customers than current estimates for energy storage,” says Mike Niggli, chair of Energy Storage Systems.
“This increasing focus is certainly linked to the increased need for resilience and stability in our grid infrastructure. That was growing even before the extreme weather event in Texas. The Biden administration’s focus on infrastructure and climate also accelerated interest.”
Niggli applauded Brown’s executive order on carbon emissions, saying that the regulatory action would create more demand for renewables in Oregon and across the country.
The Oregon Legislature has also taken notice of the changing environment. House Bill 2021, which will be considered during January's legislative season, would set a goal of a fully renewable energy grid by 2040, surpassing the federal standard.
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But not all businesses are celebrating the renewed interest in renewables.
Twenty five days after Biden took office, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission ruled that Jordan Cove Energy Project had to comply with the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality’s clean water certification standard. The $10 billion project would have built a liquefied natural gas export terminal at the Port of Coos Bay.
Developers estimate the project would create 6,000 jobs. It faced opposition from environmental groups, Democratic legislators and the Confederated Tribes of Coos, Lower Umpqua and Siuslaw Indians, because of the potential impacts on aquatic ecosystems and increased carbon emissions from natural gas consumption.
The project now faces an uncertain future, as it is unlikely to comply with the Department of Environmental Quality’s standards.
Oregon State Senator Lynn Findley, who helped organize two state Senate Republican-led walkouts that killed cap-and-trade legislation, expressed concern that heightened environmental standards could harm rural communities.
“It is disappointing that a project with such intensely positive benefits for Oregon’s economy continues to hit roadblocks.” says Findley. “Rural communities are often dependent on natural resource-based market trends, which, while wonderful, do not provide stable revenue streams. Something like Jordan Cove is ultimately the best type of revenue we could hope for.”
Even before the Biden administration appointed new leadership at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, a 2019 analysis found the Jordan Cove project would have “temporary, long-term, and permanent impacts on the environment” and pose danger to 18 threatened or endangered species. Still, Findley says the decision to stall the pipeline was ultimately a political one.
“These projects are taken very seriously, and they are intensely researched and tested over several years. The top experts in the country are working on this project to ensure any environmental impacts are mitigated,” says Findley. “That’s not to say major projects like this don’t deserve scrutiny, but the decision about Jordan Cove should be a scientific one, not a political one.”
As carbon-emitting energy solutions continue to dwindle and environmental standards continue to rise, demand for renewable energy continues to grow. But while the climate goals have been laid out, the exact methods of getting there are still up in the air.
“The big impact of the moment is the climate of uncertainty -- both with the governor’s order and the amount of clean energy bills being considered in the Legislature,” says Tyler Pepple, executive director of the Alliance of Western Energy Consumers.
“The mood right now is to move away from natural gas and electrify everything, but there are certain customers who can’t just become electrified. The second part of this is that there are companies looking to grain their energy consumption with direct access, but they have so far been unable to do so.”
Direct access means customers can purchase electricity from a third-party private electric service provider instead of from a public electric utility. These providers can offer renewable energy and competitive pricing. The concern, however, is that they will be unable to handle the required energy load.
“We asked the Oregon Commission to open an investigation into direct access, which they did, but the process has been going slowly,” says Pepple. “One of the biggest hang-ups at the moment is the utilities claim the electric service providers don’t have enough resources to meet their load during peak times.”
Diversifying energy access with private utilities could help guard against blackouts. With multiple sources of power coming from multiple locations, it becomes less likely that all power sources will be disabled during an emergency.
Four direct access providers are registered with electric utility Portland General Electric. But as demand for renewable energy increases, more renewable energy providers are entering the market, weakening arguments that there are enough to go around.
“People are looking hard at [direct access],” says Pepple. “Once standards have been put in place, I think we will see a lot more of it, because I don’t think there’s an argument about the reliability of direct access anymore.”
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