Power Is the Narcotic of Choice for Politicians

By John A. Charles, Jr.

Oregon’s free-market research center, Cascade Policy Institute, celebrated its 25th anniversary with a gala dinner party on October 20 at the Tualatin County Club. Since its founding in 1991, Cascade has emerged as a leading voice for individual liberty and economic opportunity. Building coalitions with others, Cascade has helped develop innovative policies such as Oregon’s charter school law and the more recently enacted Right-to-Try statute.

Cascade helped Ethiopian immigrants break the Portland taxi cartel and secure a license to operate a new company. The Institute also helped a young Black woman start her hair-braiding business by persuading the legislature to repeal onerous licensing regulations.

And a paper first published by Cascade in 1996 suggesting that 84,000 acres of the Elliott State Forest be sold off helped persuade the State Land Board to do just that; a sale will be approved by the Board in December of this year.

However, such advancements will be tougher to come by in the years ahead, because the culture of Oregon has changed. The permanent political class that now rules the state has little respect for the entrepreneurial spirit.

The 2016 legislative session served as Exhibit A for this change. In the short space of 30 days, the majority party rammed through two major pieces of legislation: (1) a dramatic increase in the minimum wage; and (2) a mandate forcing electric utilities to provide 50% of their retail load from designated “renewable energy” sources.

Each bill only received a few hearings. Vast areas of complexity were brushed aside as unimportant. When hundreds of witnesses showed up pleading for a more incremental approach, they were dismissed. In 35 years of lobbying, I had never seen anything like it.

This was in contrast to Cascade’s early years, when the organization sponsored “Better Government Competitions” in 1994, 1996, 1998, and 2000. These events solicited good ideas from citizens about how to make government work better. Top officials including Governor John Kitzhaber and Portland Mayor Vera Katz enthusiastically endorsed Cascade’s “citizens’ suggestion box.”

Today, many elected officials openly disdain the public they serve. They don’t want your ideas, just your obedience and your tax dollars. Moreover, if you compromise and give them half of what they want today, they’ll be back for the rest tomorrow.

Nowhere was that more evident than with the so-called “coal to clean” bill in 2016. Why was this topic even being discussed when only nine years ago the legislature passed SB 838, which mandated that large electric utilities procure 25% of their power needs from specified “renewable energy” sources by 2025?

SB 838, passed in 2007, was seen as a visionary achievement. The leading legislative advocates, Senator Brad Avakian and Representative Jackie Dingfelder, were exultant. Oregon was now on a path to renewable energy Nirvana!

Yet by 2016, the “25 by 25” banner was seen as wimpy and out of date. Oregon’s perceived reputation as an international environmental leader had been undercut by legislation elsewhere. So the new (arbitrary) standard became “50% by 2040.”

We can do better than this. Perhaps if Measure 97 fails, legislators will stop looking for quick fixes and work together on tax reform. There are officials in both parties willing to tackle PERS reform and transportation finance, if the Majority party allows it.

Replacing hubris with humility would be a good first step.


John A. Charles, Jr. is President and CEO of Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization. This article originally appeared in the October 2016 edition of the newsletter, “Oregon Transformation: Ideas for Growth and Change.”

Money

Will the PUC Make Oregon’s Solar Energy Incentives Equitable?

By Lydia White

In accordance with House Bill 2941, the Public Utilities Commission (PUC) is making recommendations to the Oregon State Legislature to ensure Oregon’s solar energy incentives are equitable, efficient, and effective.

One recommendation is to modify the compensation method for solar energy, net metering. Under net metering, solar owners consume energy their panels produce. When energy produced is insufficient, solar owners purchase additional energy from traditional sources. When excess energy is produced, solar owners sell energy. Solar owners are compensated at above-market rates and are exempt from paying their portion of incurred costs. Such costs include operation and maintenance of the grid and “spinning reserves,” the alternative power source utility companies run continuously in case solar produces less energy than projected. The state’s incentive structure shifts costs from solar owners to non-solar ratepayers. As the number of solar owners increases, ratepayers bear higher costs. The PUC is recommending these costs instead be shifted to taxpayers. While the PUC proposal’s efforts to alleviate inequity are commendable, their proposed recommendations still constrain Oregonians.

Although solar owners are double-dipping into the taxpayer pot—once when receiving heavily subsidized (and therefore low-cost) solar systems and again when receiving above-market compensation—the solar community is vehemently protesting. Despite the outcries, the PUC should pursue its recommendation to transition from net metering while also rejecting subsidies from ratepayers and taxpayers alike. By doing so, the PUC’s recommendations could relieve Oregon’s ratepayers from substantial burden.


Lydia White is a Research Associate at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization.

Get Ready for High-Cost Electricity

In the recently concluded session of the Oregon legislature, the big environmental “win” was Senate Bill 1547, a bill that was hatched in secret by two large utilities and a group of environmental activists. The bill promises to rid the Oregon electricity grid of coal-fired power and to double the required levels of “renewable energy” from 25 percent to 50 percent by 2040.

When the legislature was debating SB 1547, members were calmly assured by proponents that the cost of these requirements would be minimal. They were reminded that the existing standard of 25 percent (by 2025) had always included an “off-ramp” if the cost of compliance reached 4 percent of utility revenue—and the costs had never come close to 4 percent.

Indeed, compliance costs for PGE in 2014 were only 0.24 percent of revenue (or $4.2 million in dollar terms). Obviously, ratepayers had nothing to worry about.

This storyline was especially soothing when it was repeated by Sen. Lee Beyer, former member and chair of the Oregon Public Utilities Commission. In his grandfatherly way, he told his colleagues that everything was under control.

The problem with this narrative was that it’s highly misleading. What the advocates didn’t say was that the reason the cost of compliance so far has been low is that utilities only needed to get 10 percent of their power from designated renewable energy sources through 2014. However, from 2015 to 2019, the requirement jumps to 15 percent, and rises steadily after 2020.

No one actually knows how much it will cost to get 50 percent of the power from “green energy” sources by 2040, but it’s going to be expensive.

We get a hint of this in the PGE forecast for 2017-2021. For those five years, PGE predicts that compliance costs will total $335 million, or 3.46 percent of revenue. Those costs will have to be paid for by ratepayers, and they will get nothing in return.

Under SB 1547, the highest costs are back-loaded. Advocates know that when the program blows up a decade from now, it will be someone else’s problem. Many of the legislators who voted for it will be sitting poolside collecting their PERS checks.

Senate Bill 1547 is a fraud. Virtually every claim made by proponents is false. Instead of increasing our “energy security” by making the Oregon grid “coal-free,” it will dramatically increase the risk of power failure by force-feeding huge amounts of intermittent sources like wind and solar into the grid. In engineering terms, the electrical distribution system requires stability; SB 1547 mandates volatility.

System costs have to rise because consumers will be paying twice for the same power—once for the subsidized wind farms and again for the adult power sources used to back up the wind farms that sit idle most of the time.

The advocates also claim that SB 1547 will get coal out of the system by 2030; but Oregon’s only coal-fired power plant will be shut down in 2020 anyway. The notion that this bill will affect coal used in other states is laughable.

In his floor speech, Rep. Cliff Bentz summarized his criticism of SB 1547 by saying it was “long on symbolism, short on results, and really expensive for ratepayers.” Nonetheless, a majority of legislators voted for it, and the governor signed it.

Ratepayers deserved so much better. In 2017, repealing SB 1547 should be at the top of the legislative “to-do” list.

Oregon electricity ratepayers about to be ripped off with so-called “clean energy” bill

Oregon’s electricity ratepayers are supposed to be protected from monopolistic electric utilities by the Public Utility Commission. Yet, the most significant piece of energy legislation in decades was hatched in secret last year by those same utilities, without PUC input.

After the backroom deal became an actual legislative bill, the Oregon House of Representatives was happy to go along with the scam by approving HB 4036 in mid-February. None of the three PUC Commissioners testified on the bill.

The PUC did send a lone staff member to address the House Environment Committee, and he raised multiple concerns. He stated definitively that HB 4036 would increase costs to ratepayers and that the green power mandate would put utilities into “uncharted territory” that would risk the reliability of the regional power grid—due to the fact that wind and solar energy facilities fail to produce any output most of the time.

HB 4036 purports to be a big environmental win for the state due to a requirement that utilities cease using coal power by 2030. But Oregon only has one coal-fired power plant, at Boardman, and PGE already plans to shut it down by 2020. So this is a fake benefit. Score one for the utilities.

HB 4036 is also being marketed as a way to move Oregon to 50% reliance on “renewable power” by 2040, but that’s also a gimmick. According to the Oregon Department of Energy, the total of all electricity consumed by Oregon ratepayers from “renewable energy” sources is 6.2% of total consumption. Yet current law requires utilities to get 15%, so we already have a problem.

The gap between the reality of 6.2% and the fantasy of 15% is made up with so-called “Renewable Energy Certificates” (RECs), which don’t provide any actual electricity. RECs are just double-payments made to wind farms and other green energy producers so that the REC purchasers can pretend that they bought the actual electricity (they didn’t).

In financial terms, RECs are to power production what Bernie Madoff was to Wall Street. And just as the SEC put its stamp of approval on Madoff for years while he ran his Ponzi scheme, state and federal regulators have fully endorsed the use of RECs to allow utilities to pretend that they are using actual green electrons.

HB 4036 is specifically designed to make electricity more expensive and less reliable. That’s why there are sections in the bill allowing the PUC to temporarily stop compliance with the law under any of three conditions: if the reliability of the grid is threatened by the randomly-failing wind farms; if electricity rates rise too fast; or if the mandates for green power production (reaching 50% by 2040) can’t be met.

This is immoral. We should be enacting laws designed to make the grid more reliable and at less cost.

Proponents claim that we have to pass this bill; otherwise, even more onerous measures will be placed on the ballot in November.

So what’s the problem? Let the ballot measures go forward. I have full confidence that Oregon voters would never be dumb enough to vote to increase their rates by billions of dollars while receiving no environmental benefits.

When HB 4036 is scheduled for hearings in the Senate, legislators should insist that members of the Oregon PUC testify. The PUC is the official ratepayer watchdog; the muzzle needs to be taken off.


John A. Charles, Jr. is President and CEO of Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization. This article originally appeared in The Oregonian on February 18, 2016.

 

Electric Utilities Should Call the Bluff of Green Radicals

Two committees of the Oregon Legislature will hear presentations this week on a legislative proposal to eliminate the use of coal in Oregon’s electricity grid by 2035. Coal is the source of power for 33.4% of Oregon’s electricity consumption.

According to news reports, Portland General Electric and PacifiCorp have agreed to this proposal in order to head off a possible ballot measure that would impose even more onerous requirements if passed in November of this year.

The biggest problem with the proposal is that the two renewable technologies most preferred by radical environmental groups – solar and wind – are intermittent sources that randomly fail to provide any electricity to the grid. During the winter months when utilities must provide the highest levels of reliable power – the so-called “peak periods” – wind and solar combined supply only about 5% of the necessary electricity.

This means that ratepayers will be forced to spend billions subsidizing uneconomic renewable power facilities, and then pay a second time for gas-fired generators that will be necessary to back up the unreliable wind and solar plants.

Utility lobbyists should be ashamed of themselves for agreeing to this deal, and legislators should soundly reject it in the February legislative session. Instead, they should call the bluff of the radical greens and let them put their measures on the ballot. Few Oregonians would willingly support a “freeze in the dark” policy if given a chance to vote.

John A. Charles, Jr. is President and CEO of Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization.

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