solar panels

John Orr, left, helps load solar panels onto the roof of the Judge Guy Boyington Building in downtown Astoria.

Community choice aggregation, an effort to allow communities in Oregon to buy electricity separate from investor-funded utilities like PacifiCorp, recently became a bill introduced in the state Legislature.

With the legislative effort beginning, community choice advocate Alan Hickenbottom made his pitch Tuesday night at the Columbia Forum in Astoria for why the model can create more renewable energy innovation, cost savings and economic development.

columbia forum

Alan Hickenbottom speaks about community choice aggregation during a Columbia Forum event in Astoria.

Under community choice aggregation, a concept so far approved by eight states, authorities created by cities, counties and other local governments buy their own energy and pay exit fees to utilities to make up for the loss of customer base. Existing utilities continue to deliver power, maintain the electrical grid and provide billing and other services.

Hickenbottom, the Oregon project manager for Local Energy Aggregation Network, has pitched the idea as a modern shake-up on an antiquated energy delivery system that can lower already competitive energy rates for customers and drive innovation not possible under utilities seeking the cheapest power.

“If you can move economic and political decision-making power to the community, all sorts of interesting things may be able to happen,” he said.

He pointed to the Redwood Coast Energy Authority, an aggregator buying power for Humboldt County, California.

Humboldt experience

Redwood, formed in 2003 in response to rolling blackouts to promote energy efficiency initiatives, became an aggregator for the county of about 136,000 people in 2017. It now purchases power for 93 percent of electric accounts in the county, said Richard Engel, Redwood’s director of power resources.

“For us, one of the drivers for it was reducing greenhouse gas emissions locally,” he said. “It also slightly reduces retail costs for customers.”

Scotia biomass plant

Redwood Coast Energy Authority chose to buy power at higher rates from biomass plants, such as one attached to a Humboldt Redwood Co. lumber mill in Scotia, Calif., to help keep the facilities operational.

Even with exit fees equaling 3 cents per kilowatt hour, Redwood has been able to consistently beat the rates of Pacific Gas & Electric Co., to the tune of $15 to $20 annually for an average residential customer and upward of tens of thousands of dollars for some large commercial accounts, Engel said.

Being an aggregator with local control also allowed Redwood to take on more innovative projects, even if they cost more for energy. The utility procures about one-quarter of its energy from biomass plants powered by wood waste that were in danger of being shuttered because they could not provide competitively priced electricity.

“Our board determined it was worth paying more per kilowatt hour to support these local jobs and deal with solid waste issue at mills,” Engel said.

Redwood is helping finance a 2-megawatt solar array at the Humboldt County Airport that will also provide 8 megawatts of storage to help power a Coast Guard station and other first responders in a natural disaster. It is also exploring an offshore floating wind energy farm with a consortium of renewable energy companies.

Getting political

House Bill 2852, introduced earlier this month, would allow community choice aggregation in Oregon. The bill has no sponsor but state Rep. Ken Helm, D-Beaverton, is supportive, Hickenbottom said.

Local utility Pacific Power, which covers most of Clatsop County aside from the Wauna Mill and Westport, has already come out against the bill.

“We think bringing California-style (aggregation) to Oregon would undercut statewide oversight of electrical service and introduce cost and service risks we don’t have now,” said Bob Gravely, a spokesman for Pacific Power.

Gravely pointed out that states with aggregators have higher electricity rates compared to Oregon, which is flush with cheap hydropower.

Pacific Power, part of PacifiCorp covering much of the West and Mountain regions, has been criticized for sourcing more than half of its power from coal. But the utility is up to about 30 percent carbon-free energy resources and plans to take its coal plants offline in the next 20 years, Gravely said.

Chris Delinski, operating manager for Pacific Power, was at Hickenbottom’s presentation Tuesday. He pointed out a 200-megawatt solar array PacifiCorp built in Utah and said the utility is responding to customer demand for more renewable energy.

The Clean Electricity and Coal Transition Act, passed in 2016, upped the state’s energy consumption goals to eliminate coal and go 50 percent renewable by 2040.

Hickenbottom countered Delinski, saying that despite the law’s push to add renewable-related jobs in Oregon, all of PacifiCorp’s renewable production has been focused in the Mountain region.

“They haven’t allowed a non-PacifiCorp-owned, medium-scale renewable project on their system in over four years,” he said.

Hickenbottom has cast the fear utilities have over community aggregation as misguided, saying they will still play a role in overseeing transmission of energy and new innovations, such as accommodating the infrastructure for a rise in electric cars.

“This doesn’t remove the need for bulk energy,” he said of aggregation. “This just brings the choice to you.”

solar panels

Nick Odom, left, and John Orr stack panels delivered by Precision Solar to the Judge Guy Boyington Building in downtown Astoria.

The Oregon Clean Energy Jobs Act, under consideration this session, would create a statewide cap-and-trade carbon tax system on greenhouse gas emissions and potentially hundreds of millions of dollars in new revenue for statewide investments.

Hickenbottom expects community aggregation to take a back seat this session to the cap-and-trade bill, and likely take two to three sessions to gain traction. But he sees aggregation as a way to make the revenue generated by such bills more locally actionable.

“My hope is (aggregation) may be seen as our next opportunity for advancing what we can do with energy in this state,” he said.

Edward Stratton is a reporter for The Daily Astorian. Contact him at 971-704-1719 or estratton@dailyastorian.com.

(1) comment

Slappy McFerrin

This is a problem, masquerading as a solution that's looking for a problem. It's silly to think we'll save money by adding another layer of bureaucracy to the system. The Western Oregon Electric Cooperative out of Vernonia is a fine example of what not to do. Let's learn from our neighbor's mistakes.

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