Trump Can’t Stop This: Climate Action in the Northwest

The transition from coal to clean energy in the region is well underway.
Wind turbines over Columbia River Gorge, Washington
Credit: Debi Bishop/iStock

The transition from coal to clean energy in the region is well underway.

Welcome to the Northwest edition of our blog series highlighting the clean energy achievements and climate action continuing across the United States―despite the Trump administration’s efforts to roll back federal climate policies. Each blog is focused on a different region of the country. (Check out our previous posts on the Northeast/Mid-AtlanticMidwest, Southeast, and Southwest.)

This post, authored by Elisheva Mittelman, originally appeared as a guest post in Kevin Steinberger's blog.

With the rise of science denial in our nation’s capital, the responsibility for climate action has fallen to state and local leaders. The northwestern states have proudly picked up the mantle. (This blog series will not go into much detail on California’s accomplishments, as clean energy developments in California have been covered extensively in other NRDC blogs―see here and here for more on the state’s recent climate leadership and smart policy decisions.)

These states have undoubtedly set a high bar for the rest of the country and the world as they lead the way in both renewable energy investments and ambitious clean energy policies, thanks in part to the strong network of clean energy advocacy groups in the region, such as Renewable Northwest and the Northwest Energy Coalition. From impressive climate progress in Oregon to the fast-growing market for renewables across the Northwest, states throughout this region have repeatedly demonstrated their commitment to clean energy, economic development, and public health. And, as the region implements its Seventh Northwest Power Plan, its customers will continue to benefit from its strong energy efficiency programs and standards, which have already cut the region’s annual power bills by more than $3 billion over the course of the past three decades, while avoiding tens of millions of tons of carbon pollution.

Steadfast Commitment to Climate Action

Following President Trump’s decision to withdraw the United States from the Paris Agreement, leaders across the country recognized that action at the state level would be necessary in order to continue working toward our country’s climate goals. The governor of Washington immediately joined the governors of California and New York to form the U.S. Climate Alliance, a coalition of states (and Puerto Rico) that have committed to reducing CO2 emissions and meeting or exceeding the goals of the Clean Power Plan. Oregon joined the Climate Alliance soon after it was created, and the state’s governor, Kate Brown, reaffirmed her commitment to climate action by stating that “despite the decision by the White House to retreat, it is our moral obligation to fulfill the goals of the Paris Agreement.”

Oregon has already taken significant action to reduce its carbon emissions and increase renewable energy in the state. Governor Brown signed a bill in 2016 that increased the state’s renewable portfolio standard (RPS) to 50 percent by 2040 and requires Oregon’s two largest utilities to completely eliminate coal imports by 2035. Both utilities―Portland General Electric and Pacific Power―have requested early acquisition of renewable resources in their 2017 integrated resource plans (IRP) in order to take advantage of the federal production tax credit (PTC), which decreases in value by 20 percent each year. Whether the Oregon Utility Commission will allow PGE to take smart, early action on a low-cost and high-value renewable acquisition remains to be seen.

Washington and Oregon, along with dozens of cities, businesses, and universities in the region, have also signed on to the We Are Still In pledge, joining more than 2,200 other leaders from across the country who have committed to meeting the goals of the Paris Agreement.

Expanding Markets for Wind and Solar

Despite the Trump administration’s efforts to boost coal production and roll back environmental protections, many utility companies are moving forward with big investments in renewable energy. Rocky Mountain Power recently requested approval from Wyoming, Idaho, and Utah regulators for its planned $3.5 billion investment in wind energy. According to the power company’s IRP, the plan includes upgrading existing wind turbines with longer blades, beginning construction on a transmission line, and adding almost 2,000 MW of new wind capacity by 2036. Most of the new wind projects will be located in Wyoming, a state that currently relies heavily on coal.

The transition from coal to clean energy in the region is underway. Oregon’s last coal plant is closing in the coming years; half of Colstrip, Montana’s largest coal plant, is slated to close no later than 2022; Washington will shutter its only remaining coal plant by 2025. Wyoming, the state with the most coal production and mining, already has almost 1,500 MW of installed wind capacity―that’s enough wind generation to power more than 400,000 homes―and a 3,000-MW, 1,000-turbine wind project is currently in development. Several wind companies in Wyoming are also providing free job training for wind technicians in oil and coal country to assist with the transition to a low-carbon energy system. Trainings such as these are more important than ever as wind technician is now the fastest-growing occupation in the country.

Solar jobs have been steadily increasing in the region as well. California currently holds the no. 1 spot nationwide, while Oregon and Washington saw year-over-year solar job growth of 50 percent and 63 percent, respectively, from 2015 to 2016. Both ranked in the top 20 for solar jobs in 2016.

Meanwhile, the western Energy Imbalance Market (EIM), run by the California Independent System Operator (CAISO), is evidence that it is possible to achieve both significant emissions reductions and huge cost benefits while also supporting the integration of renewable energy. The western EIM is a real-time energy trading market that determines the lowest-cost energy resources for participants in eight western states. It has generated nearly $175 million in gross benefits so far, and by reducing renewables curtailment―when renewables projects have to reduce their output because of overgeneration or congestion on the grid―the EIM has achieved emissions reductions equivalent to taking approximately 37,000 passenger cars off the road for one year.

CAISO is currently working to build on the success of the EIM and develop a regional ISO, with the goal of reducing carbon emissions and creating a more efficient and reliable grid in the West. A regional ISO would fully coordinate electricity systems and day-ahead markets (rather than only the real-time market in the EIM) across the western states. This expanded regional energy market would allow participants in western states to utilize the region’s broad mix of renewable energy resources more effectively while also helping California reach its clean energy goals. A recent study found that a regional market could also save California customers $1billion to $1.5 billion on their electricity bills by 2030.

Through efforts to reduce emissions, move away from dirty fuel sources, and improve access to renewable energy, states and utility companies across the Northwest have demonstrated their strong commitment to climate action as they continue to pave the way toward a clean energy future.