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Oregon Takes a Strong Stand for Clean Energy

Janine Benner

There is a strong groundswell of support for solar power and energy efficiency in Oregon. This has boosted the state’s programs and amplified their accomplishments, according to Janine Benner, director of Oregon Department of Energy. In this interview, she said Oregon is using these technologies to offset the environmental impact of its growing IT industry.

CEFF: How would you describe the solar-energy market's current successes and challenges in Oregon?

Benner: To say that solar is expanding in Oregon would be an understatement. The Oregon Department of Energy got our first application for a utility-scale solar project about a year ago. And in February, that facility – a 75-MW project near the Columbia River – was approved. Today, we have another four projects, representing just over 800 MW of capacity, up for review.

Between those proposed projects and the projects in the queue for utilities adding solar, we’re looking at a big increase in our state’s solar capacity over the next five years.

Part of this is driven by our Renewable Portfolio Standard, which was expanded in 2016. [This took place] along with a commitment to get rid of coal by 2035. And, of course, the decrease in cost of solar photovoltaics has really helped.

For rooftop solar, the decreases in cost and a variety of incentives have helped encourage homeowners to add solar at an increasing pace through 2017. We’ve given out incentives for more than 15,000 projects totaling nearly 70 MW across the state.

One of the challenges the market faces is the sunset of the residential state tax credit at the end of 2017. So we might see some changes in volume.

[However,] our agency is working hard to implement federal grants dedicated to decreasing the soft costs of solar and improving the equitable distribution of solar ownership. We also expect more community solar projects to spring up as Oregon’s new community solar program is implemented later this year.

Oregon values are certainly at play here. This state is committed to renewable energy – at the policy level, in how businesses lead by example, and through individual homeowners’ actions. Oregon has very robust participation in utilities’ voluntary green-energy programs. In fact, our largest utility has a larger share of customers opting into voluntary renewable power than any other energy company in the country.

CEFF: What is your perspective on the energy efficiency market's successes and challenges at this time in Oregon?

Benner: We’re really seeing how Oregon’s investments in energy efficiency are paying off.

Energy efficiency is our second largest energy resource in the Pacific Northwest after hydropower.

Over the past decade, Oregon has reached its lowest per capita energy use – and reduced energy use in the residential, commercial and industrial sectors.

Just over the past six years, estimates say the region saved enough electricity to avoid the need to build four new natural gas-fired power plants.

This is true for our state even with the rise in more energy-intensive industries like cryptocurrencies, indoor agriculture, and data centers – and the fact that our state is starting to see two high-demand periods – winter and summer – instead of just one.

That’s all good news, but I think what’s really working in our favor is the fact that Oregon isn’t complacent about energy efficiency. Efficiency continues to be our lowest cost and most cost-effective strategy. We’re working hard on making sure our policies, codes and rules keep up with new technologies and trends in the market.

For example, we’re actively working on solar-ready buildings, electric vehicle infrastructure, zero-energy-ready homes, and high-performance commercial buildings.

The challenges include meeting new electricity demand from an increasing population. Also, the increasing presence of technology in our homes and businesses [ramps up demand.] [We want to accomplish this] without losing traction in our efficiency gains and while expanding into hard-to-reach markets.

Along with energy savings, we’re still working on capturing the full value of energy efficiency. Efficiency brings us opportunities to improve indoor environments, take advantage of smart tech and interconnected systems, and address issues like resiliency. [This will help] our energy systems bounce back from a major event like an earthquake or fire.

CEFF: What stakeholder decisions would catalyze forward movement in these two markets in Oregon?

Benner: Over the past year, we’ve had some important catalysts drive our work, including an executive order from our governor on improving energy efficiency in the built environment.

Our largest city and county each committed to 100 percent renewable energy by 2035. If other Oregon cities and counties follow their lead, we’ll see even greater changes to our energy mix.

And our legislature has been discussing whether we should price carbon. A decision is expected in the 2019 legislative session. Doing so would certainly influence both markets going forward.

Looking ahead, we’re seeing a lot of work go into demand response tools as utilities’ look at ways to shift electricity usage toward periods with excess carbon-free output.

Energy storage continues to be an important emerging technology. The Oregon Department of Energy is helping to fund a pilot storage project at the Eugene Water & Electric Board. Also, two of the state’s largest electric utilities are building or planning solar-plus-storage systems to enhance local resiliency.

Developers are also proposing either new or amended energy projects with a solar-plus-storage component. And as the technology matures and prices come down, we expect that to grow.

Finally, my agency is working with stakeholders on standards for energy-efficient appliances because we know full well that the market moves fast and we need to be ready.

Note: Emma McDonald contributed research to this article.

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