• Kenneth Huey

City staffers weren't mincing words last month when it came to defending solar and wind power development in Oregon.

As we report in this week's Mercury, Portland-based Pacific Power is pushing for new rules many feel would kill renewable energy development in Oregon, and people in the city's Bureau of Planning and Sustainability are worried enough they want city attorneys to step in.

Pacific's schemes would "severely constrain the ability of the City to develop future renewable energy projects" they wrote in a memo to council in August, and "would be detrimental to the City's potential" for meeting its goals for stopping climate change.

Then something unusual happened. Pacific Power, alarmed at the memo, petitioned the city for a meeting that included at least one mayor's office staffer, BPS officials, and the city attorney's office. And afterward, suddenly the language in that city document wasn't as fierce.

The city attorney's office unveiled new, weaker verbiage yesterday. Now the city's position is that Pacific Power only "might" constrain the city's ability to develop renewable project, and "could be potentially detrimental" to our climate change goals.

The people who develop and fight for Oregon's still-nascent renewable energy industry take a far stronger stance. If Pacific succeeds in getting the state's Public Utility Commission (PUC) to change rules around what the power company must pay, under federal law, for electricity from small-scale solar and wind projects that pop up, a host of groups—both here and elsewhere—warn that future development may be doomed. Pacific says it's just acting in the best interests of its customers, arguing that an unprecedented number of solar and wind projects slated to come online will increase rates, since they'll be more expensive than burning fossil fuels like coal. (That argument has been pretty thoroughly debunked [pdf].)

As Fred Heutte, a senior policy associate with the Northwest Energy Coalition, told us: "The utilities are talking about their concerns about climate and then turning around and basically trying to restrain one of the most important programs we've got."

Regardless of the verbiage in the memo, the city's going to fight Pacific Power on this. City council this morning voted 4-0, with only brief discussion, to let the City Attorney's office intervene in the case before the PUC.

Commissioner Amanda Fritz was the only one to question the city's weakened language around the issue. Both Mayor Charlie Hales and Commissioner Nick Fish cheered it as a sign of positive relations with Pacific (and its parent company, Portland-based PacifiCorp).

"Isn't it somewhat unusual," Fritz wanted to know, "to listen to the opposition and amend the position ahead of time?"

Deputy city attorney Ben Walters said it was. "I don't know that [the changes] affect the position that we're going to be taking in the proceeding itself," he said. "Staff was willing to recognize PacifiCorp's concerns."

So now the city's got a climate fight on its hands, weakened rhetoric or no.

"The Climate Action Plan isn’t just a piece of paper or a long series of pieces of paper," Hales said this morning. "It's a serious effort by this city. The more we have utilities working with us, the faster we can get to our goals."