PGE Leans into an All-of-the-Above Strategy to Decarbonize Its Power System

Climate change has led many states and countries to set targets for reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from power systems. Oregon, for example, has set targets for all power sold to retail customers in the state to have GHG emissions cut by 80% by 2030, 90% by 2035, and 100% by 2040.

It’s a challenging task, but Portland General Electric (PGE), a fully integrated energy company that generates, transmits, and distributes electricity to roughly half of Oregon’s population, and for about 75% of its commercial and industrial activity, is working hard to achieve those objectives. As the first utility in the U.S. to sign The Climate Pledge, an initiative co-founded by Amazon and Global Optimism in 2019, which has since had 464 signatories join, committing to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2040, PGE is leading the way toward a cleaner energy future.

Kristen Sheeran, senior director of sustainability, strategy, and resources planning at PGE, said the process is pretty straightforward in some ways. “In order to reduce carbon on our system, we have to back out fossil fuels that we currently rely on to generate power for our customers, and we have to replace that with non-emitting alternatives,” she said as a guest on The POWER Podcast.

Up to this point in time, that has primarily been done with wind, solar, and batteries, and it’s not a new thing for PGE. The company’s first wind farm—the Biglow Canyon site—began operation in 2007. Meanwhile, in 2012, PGE opened the Camino del Sol Solar Station, an interstate highway solar project. Since then, the company has partnered with schools, government agencies, and corporations to grow solar energy throughout Oregon. In partnership with NextEra Energy Resources, it also opened North America’s first major renewable energy facility to combine wind, solar, and battery storage in one location—the Wheatridge Renewable Energy Facility in Morrow County. Today, PGE boasts having more than 1 GW of wind power capacity in service in the Northwest, and it aims to procure between 3.5 GW and 4.5 GW of new non-emitting resources and storage between now and 2030.

Perhaps more difficult than decarbonizing the system, however, is doing so while also maintaining reliability, affordability, and an equitable system for all its customers. “It’s a very interesting point in time—an inflection point for the industry,” Sheeran said. “How do you balance affordability? How do you balance reliability with emissions reduction?” she asked.

PGE closed its last Oregon-based coal-fired power plant in October 2020, 20 years ahead of schedule, as part of an agreement with stakeholders, customer groups, and regulators to significantly reduce air emissions from power production in Oregon. PGE still receives a small amount of coal-fired power from the Colstrip plant, which is located near Billings, Montana. The company has an ownership stake in the facility, but it plans to exit its ownership in Colstrip no later than 2029.

Brett Greene, PGE’s senior director of clean energy origination and structuring, suggested striking the right energy balance will take more than just wind and solar, however. “We are supportive of all technology. We really think it takes a lot of innovation and creativity to hit that net-zero goal in 2040,” he said. Greene noted that resources such as hydro, pumped storage, offshore wind, and even nuclear, hydrogen, and carbon capture technologies may ultimately be needed to fully decarbonize PGE’s power mix.

To hear the full interview with Sheeran and Greene, which contains much more about PGE’s goals, outreach efforts, partnerships with customers and other stakeholders, technology being utilized, and demand changes, listen to The POWER Podcast. Click on the SoundCloud player below to listen in your browser now or use the following links to reach the show page on your favorite podcast platform:

For more power podcasts, visit The POWER Podcast archives.

Aaron Larson is POWER’s executive editor (@AaronL_Power, @POWERmagazine).

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