Photos by Jeremy Okai Davis

WHILE PORTLAND'S high-profile green innovations are helping the city's image become synonymous with sustainability (see: condo developers topping their downtown towers with wind turbines) the city runs on a dirty secret. Forty percent of Portland's energy comes from a very un-green source: coal.

Environmental groups are pressuring Portland General Electric (PGE) to shut down its Oregon coal-burning power plant and stop fueling the state with coal altogether by 2020. The groups have some political support, but whether the grassroots effort can force the power giant to change course is unclear.

Hundreds of Portlanders filled Pioneer Courthouse Square on Saturday afternoon, October 24, waving flags for clean energy and better climate-change legislation as part of an international protest organized by 350.org. On the sidelines, friendly representatives from PGE offered to sign people up for the company's renewable energy program. The 350.org event was the second environmental protest of the week in the square. At the first, on Wednesday, October 21, the Sierra Club singled out PGE, with a giant inflatable replica of Boardman coal power plant emblazed with the words, "Make PGE coal free!"

The Boardman coal plant in Eastern Oregon releases tens of thousands of tons of toxic chemicals into the air annually, including five million tons of carbon dioxide (as much as nearly one million cars). The Sierra Club is part of a coalition that's currently suing the plant in federal court for allegedly violating the Clean Air Act.

With the background noise of bongos and tribal chanting filling Pioneer Courthouse Square on Saturday, PGE representatives hyped the company's clean wind and biomass energy programs. But altogether those earth-friendly energy sources make up only four percent of PGE's power. In a draft of the company's new two-year plan released last month, PGE promotes energy efficiency—but also says it will increase its reliance on coal.

Grassroots greenies are not the only ones upset at PGE's continued use of coal. Mayor Sam Adams recently wrote a letter to PGE and the Public Utility Commission, which oversees PGE's energy plans, criticizing the increased use of coal and calling for PGE to shut down Boardman.

"Not many Portlanders know that for every 10 minutes they turn on a light, four of those minutes are powered with coal," says Adams. "I want to engage with [PGE] and come up with a business model for investing more in energy efficiency, clean energy, and eco-districts."

The state Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) also wants Boardman closed. That agency gave PGE until 2014 to either shut down the plant or install major environmental upgrades. Adams, the DEQ, and environmental critics think the company can shut down Boardman and make up a sizable portion of the lost-energy simply through helping customers become more energy efficient.

PGE spokesman Steve Corson says if the company switched from coal, it would need to rely more on natural gas. "That would leave us vulnerable to natural gas price hikes," says Corson, explaining that power rates might increase. PGE is currently planning to keep Boardman open until at least 2040 after installing the environmental upgrades. Critics say the threat of a rate increase is off base when PGE's departing CEO Peggy Fowler got a $4.5 million severance package last year.

The decision over Oregon's energy future comes down to the three-person Public Utility Commission, which will look over PGE's plan next month. Commission administrator Ed Busch says it is very rare for a company to go against the recommendations of the governor-appointed group, though they are not legally binding.

In April 2008, the commission voted down energy company PacifiCorp's plan to build and acquire four coal power plants. "The commission made it pretty clear they're not in favor of coal," says Busch. "The company backed off and are not planning any new coal plants. I guess the commissioners made PacifiCorp see the error of their ways."