May 31, 2013

Bill Could Classify Hydroelectric as Renewable Energy

State Rep. Greg Smith, R-Heppner, will be the first to sign an initiative Thursday that would allow utilities to include hydroelectric power as part of their renewable energy requirements, avoiding potentially significant rate hikes.

The Affordable Renewable Energy Act needs 87,213 signatures to make the ballot in November 2014. Smith discussed his support of the petition in an interview Wednesday with the East Oregonian, calling hydroelectric power the cleanest form of energy in Oregon.

“I think it’s important for Oregonians to recognize the value of hydroelectric power, and not let Salem change its definition purely for political reasons,” Smith said.

Opponents say lumping existing hydropower in with renewable energy gets around the spirit of the law, which was to increase investment in new, cleaner energy production.

In 2007, the Legislature created a renewable portfolio standard for large utilities to provide 25 percent of the electricity they sell from renewable sources by 2025. The law approved wind, solar and geothermal among the sources, but left out most hydroelectric power.

Yet hydroelectric is a much cheaper supply of energy, Smith said, costing about 3-4 cents per kilowatt-hour. Wind, on the other hand, costs 11-12 cents per kilowatt-hour, he said.

By including hydroelectric in the renewable portfolio standard, those larger utilities — defined as having sales equaling at least 3 percent of the statewide total — could purchase power at the lowest rates available and keep costs low for ratepayers.

This is important on a local level, Smith said, as the Umatilla Electric Cooperative is now approaching that threshold given the increased development in Hermiston and the Port of Morrow. If the utility must buy 25 percent of its power from more expensive renewable sources, it stands to rack up an additional $41 million in expenses.

With hydroelectric accounting for 78 percent of the cooperative’s resources, it could avoid extra expenses if the Affordable Renewable Energy Act passes.

“That’s huge, not only for residential customers, but also for the Port of Morrow and Port of Umatilla as they attract industry to our area,” Smith said. “It’s so important for the economy of Eastern Oregon.”

The initiative was approved for circulation May 15. It is sponsored, in part, by Paul Cosgrove, a Portland attorney who represents the Umatilla Electric Cooperative before the Legislature. Salem resident Tom Hammer is the other chief petitioner.

Cosgrove is pleased to have Smith as the first to sign the petition, he said, and expects state Sen. Bill Hansell, R-Athena, to be the second.

“When you ask Oregonians whether hydroelectric power should be treated as renewable, overwhelmingly the answer is yes,” Cosgrove said.

Smith will sign the initiative at 8 a.m. at his Salem office. He is hoping to show how the Columbia and Snake rivers can be used for everything from the environment and flood control, without taking anything away from economic development.

“We have a great resource, if we use it responsibly,” he said.

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