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The cheapest power is the power you conserve: Meet the Fair & Clean Energy Coalition

The Seattle Times ran a piece last week positing the question of what it would be like to have to provide energy for two more cities the size of Seattle in the Northwest Region. The answer, you find, in reading the article “Energy conservation: using less to do more” is that we don’t have to go there (what a relief!), because that is the amount of energy the Northwest has conserved in the past 20 years.

CUB has been actively involved in conservation efforts that have contributed to the two cities’ worth of energy that does not need to be produced. Much of this work has been done through our membership in the Fair & Clean Energy Coalition (FCEC), and the leadership of CUB’s Organizing Director, Jeff Bissonnette, in pulling the coalition together. We’d like to introduce you to FCEC, if you’re not familiar with their work.

FCEC arose out of a nationwide push for electricity industry deregulation that occurred in the mid- to late-90s. When Enron purchased Oregon’s largest electric utility, Portland General Electric (PGE) in late 1996, they almost immediately carried a proposal to the Oregon Public Utility Commission (PUC) to deregulate Oregon’s electricity market. Their proposal contained no provisions for some of the programs most important to Oregonians, such as conservation, low-income assistance programs, and rate regulation. So CUB, along with a handful of other groups such as OSPIRG, Renewable Northwest Project, AARP, Community Action Directors of Oregon, the NW Energy Coalition, the Oregon Solar Energy Industries Assoc., and the Oregon Energy Coordinator Association, sprang into action.

This group of public interest organizations began meeting and hammering out agreement on the principles that should form the basis for an alternative to Enron’s deregulation scheme. We decided that a restructuring plan that allowed large industrial customers to purchase market power was acceptable, as long as residential and small business customers retained the stability of PUC-regulated electric rates. In addition, the groups agreed that advocating for fair rates for customers and a clean electricity system was of paramount importance. Thus, the Fair & Clean Energy Coalition was born.

After a great deal of advocacy, education, and organizing work throughout 1997 and 1998, in 1999 FCEC was instrumental in the Oregon Legislature’s passage of SB 1149, the Energy Restructuring Act. This law gave the large industrial and commercial customers the direct access to an open energy market they had been calling for, and at the same time guaranteed that residential and small business customers would be protected by PUC regulation of electric rates and services.

SB 1149 provided for: 1) the Portfolio Options, giving customers the choice of basic cost of service electricity, or electricity that included power from renewable sources; 2) $10 million per year set aside for low income energy assistance; and 3) three percent of utility revenue being directed to energy efficiency and renewable energy programs. The independent non-profit organization that CUB and FCEC proposed for these renewable and conservation efforts, and that was approved by the PUC, became the Energy Trust of Oregon which opened its doors in 2002.

By creating the Energy Trust of Oregon, we took conservation programs out of the hands of the utilities and thereby defused an inherent conflict of interest on the part of the utilities (who sell the power and have an interest in promoting its use rather than deterring it). In its first 2 years of operation, the Energy Trust is estimated to have saved and generated enough electricity from renewable sources to power 17,000 homes, with an environmental benefit equivalent to 24 million miles not driven and 11,000 tons of air pollution offset.

The portfolio options offering renewable power have also been hugely successful. In states like Pennsylvania where deregulation is viewed as “working,” it took 5 years and hefty consumer discounts in power cost to achieve the level of participation that Oregon residents achieved after only two years, without discounts, immediately following an energy crisis! For us, this underlines the fact that Oregonians care deeply about the issue of clean energy and a clean environment.

The Low Income Energy Assistance program has also been well-run and much-needed. Although we know that not everyone who has a need for utility bill assistance is having that need met with the funds available, we still are deeply grateful for the funds that are present through this program. They have helped thousands of Oregon families through hard times.

FCEC has taken an active role throughout the process of developing the particular programs that grew out of its initial work on the Energy Restructuring Act. It has contributed members to the Portfolio Options Committee set up by the PUC to oversee PGE and PacifiCorp’s Portfolio Options programs. It has been active in the structuring and governance of the Energy Trust, and it has had influence in the administration of the $10 million per year that goes to help low income families pay their electric bills.

So the next time you hear about conservation in the Northwest, about the cities we don’t have to power because that demand has been met through conservation, think of CUB and our work with the Fair & Clean Energy Coalition. It’s one of the reasons we’re here.

Associated Websites:

Oregon Energy Coordinators Association

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