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Portland Commits to Using 100% Renewable Energy by 2050

Portland and Multnomah County's top elected leaders committed Monday to transitioning to 100 percent renewable energy sources by 2050. But the announcement was light on financial details.

By Andrew Theen
Portland and Multnomah County's top elected leaders committed Monday to transitioning to 100 percent renewable energy sources by 2050.
Mayor Ted Wheeler and County Chair Deborah Kafoury made the announcement at the June Key Delta Community Center in North Portland, a one-time gas station that's been converted into a green building.
Wheeler, just a few months into his mayoral term, says he has no illusions the energy goal will come easily. "They will be difficult to achieve," he said of the push to meet all electricity needs from renewable sources by 2035, and to transition away from all remaining dirty energy sources, primarily fossil fuels in the transportation sector, by 2050.
"We're actually going to have to make deliberate steps, and deliberate investments, and deliberate policy changes in order for this to become a reality," he said, "and I'm committed to that."
Monday's announcement was heavy on grand pronouncements but light on financial details. The city and county can lead the way in some respects, but much of the heavy lifting will depend on utilities and the market for electric vehicles accelerating.
Though he praised the city's long history of climate change activism, Wheeler said the city wavered a bit in its commitment. "The truth is we really did take our attention off of [climate change], other priorities intervened, and I like to think that this collective effort today is reigniting our commitment to those goals."
Portland and the county join 25 other U.S. cities that have made the 100 percent pledge in recent years. Salt Lake City and San Diego, for example, plan to ease off coal and natural gas by 2032 and 2035 respectively. Last January, the Sierra Club started the "Ready for 100" campaign to urge cities to transition to 100 percent renewable energy sources.
To meet the electricity goals, the city and county will have to rely on utilities like Portland General Electric to more quickly turn away from coal and other fossil fuels. PGE's coal-fired plant in Boardman is expected to close by 2020, and the utility is still determining what to do next.
Wheeler said he's engaging in that conversation with PGE, and that he is advocating for it to buy natural gas futures from an energy marketplace rather than building a new natural gas facility in Eastern Oregon. "We want to work with them and make sure we're protecting not only the climate, but also the ratepayer," Wheeler said.
Dave Robertson, vice president of Public Policy and Corporate Resiliency at PGE, confirmed that the utility is working with the city and county.
"If our resource strategy is approved by regulators, we will add significant amounts of renewable energy to surpass our 2025 renewable energy target more than five years early and at a reduced cost to our customers," he said in a statement. "The addition of these new renewable resources, combined with our existing wind, solar and hydroelectric facilities, will enable PGE to generate more than 50 percent of our energy from carbon-free sources by 2020."
Sierra Club responded in a statement saying that PGE should hear the "very clear message" from ratepayers, which Wheeler and Kafoury represent. "Oregon does not want or need new fossil fuel infrastructure," said Erica Stock, director of the Sierra Club's Oregon Chapter. "PGE is fighting to build two new fracked gas plants in Boardman that would power Portland for at least forty years. But Portland and Multnomah County are drawing a line in the sand."
A PGE spokeswoman said the utility has not determined the future of the Boardman site and is open to "all options."
Portland can only do so much as a municipality to move off fossil fuel sources. Wheeler said the city and county know that and will "lead by example." To that end, the city plans establish an electric-first strategy for buying new vehicles.
The Portland Building, home to more than 1,000 city employees, will be renovated to meet LEED Gold status and reduce energy use by 20 percent. The new Multnomah County Courthouse and Health Department now under construction also will be LEED Gold certified and capable of operating with 40 to 50 percent less energy than comparable facilities.
City officials will move to add five renewable projects at city facilities, such as solar projects at some police and fire headquarters.
Wheeler said in a statement the city shares all these goals with major regional and national partners such as Nike, Microsoft and others.
Kafoury said at a news conference the region is facing a "reality check" as it rebounds from the wettest winter in recent years and other effects of climate change.
"It is an imperative," she said of meeting the energy pledge. "We must get there and we can only get there together. This is a pledge to our children's future."
Portland and the county will try to woo and encourage companies that sell and produce low-carbon goods and services, and that the region will fight back against federal policies that grow carbon emissions.
The city and county are encouraged that Portland's climate-related industries are already attracting middle- and high-wage jobs to the region.
"No matter which way the political winds are blowing in Washington D.C.," Wheeler said,"I want you to know that Portland will continue to stay the course."
The city already has a Climate Action Plan with aggressive goals such as reducing carbon emissions 80 percent of 1990 levels by 2050.
Big gains will need to occur in the transportation world, Wheeler said, and there's an expectation the market will continue embracing electric vehicles.
The city will need to ensure the infrastructure is in place, he said.
The city and county had no cost estimates for what fully implementing the plan would entail.
(c)2017 The Oregonian 

Elizabeth Daigneau is GOVERNING's managing editor.
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