One of the biggest engines behind Oregon’s growth in wind and solar energy, which has provided jobs and pollution-free electricity, is under attack, and you might be surprised at the out-of-state company that stands to benefit the most.
It’s not a heavy manufacturer or a mining company – it’s Amazon, the technology giant. Here’s how:
Much of Oregon’s renewable energy growth has been driven by the Oregon renewable portfolio standard, which requires bigger utilities, like Pacific Power and PGE, to provide 25 percent of their electricity from renewable sources by 2025. Smaller utilities must reach only 10 percent renewable energy. This staggered approach was part of a grand bargain when the law was adopted in 2007, along with additional flexibility for when smaller utilities graduated to the big leagues.
But one of the “small” utilities, Umatilla Electric Cooperative, has decided this deal is no longer good enough. Umatilla has lobbied lawmakers to let them off the hook from the higher standard, failing twice. Now, Umatilla has opted for an all-out assault on the law and is financing a statewide ballot initiative to redefine renewable energy entirely by counting 60-year-old dams toward meeting the requirement.
What is driving Umatilla to such lengths to gut Oregon’s clean energy law? What has changed for Umatilla since the law was passed in 2007? Enter Jeff Bezos and Amazon, which announced its arrival in Oregon in 2008, with plans to build three data centers in Umatilla’s service territory.
Many of Amazon’s biggest competitors have embraced the notion that renewable energy is critical to their long-term success. Apple, Google, Facebook and Rackspace all operate or are building data centers in Oregon. They are demanding that their utilities provide more, not less, renewable energy and have been working to strengthen, not weaken, state and federal policies to increase investment in renewable energy.
Amazon could follow suit and use its leverage as Umatilla’s biggest customer to demand that the utility accept the clean energy law and provide wind and solar energy for its data centers. But unlike its peers, Amazon has steadfastly refused even to report its environmental footprint, much less make it smaller.
Gov. John Kitzhaber has established a task force to seek a compromise with Umatilla that would avoid a ballot initiative. One proposal would have allowed Umatilla to choose only to have big new customers – namely Amazon – meet the 25 percent renewable energy standard. Umatilla refused that option. The “compromise” now on the table is what Umatilla wanted all along, a carve-out allowing it to avoid buying real renewable electricity by purchasing “renewable energy credits,” from wind and solar installations that they wouldn’t build, and likely wouldn’t even be located in Oregon.
Avoiding a ballot initiative that could gut a successful statewide energy law is desirable, but this compromise is a bad deal for Oregon; it would strike at the heart of the law’s integrity, meaning less clean energy investment and fewer jobs. If Umatilla and Amazon are allowed to bully their way out of their clean energy responsibilities by taking the renewable energy law hostage, what’s to stop other utilities and their customers from doing the same thing?
Amazon should commit to renewable energy goals like its peers at Apple, Google, Facebook and Rackspace. As a part of that commitment, Jeff Bezos should call his power providers at Umatilla and say that if they want to keep Amazon’s business, Umatilla needs to invest in clean energy like other responsible utilities in the state.
A petulant utility and a rich, out-of-state tech giant should not be allowed to hijack a clean energy program that is, by all other accounts, helping to carry Oregon into the future.