Wind and Solar? It's time to look to expanding
May Newsletter by Oregon State Senator
Doug Whitsett, District 28, Herald and News 5/26/16
The Legislative Assembly frequently debated the proper role
of Oregon government. Most lawmakers agree that one of the
fundamental functions of government is to provide the basic
infrastructure that enables all citizens to have access to
shared services such as roads, public schools and clean, potable
water. Arguably, those services should include access to
electric and natural gas utilities.
During the 2015 session, the Legislature passed Senate Bill 32
by wide bipartisan margins. The bill states the Oregon
Legislative Assembly finds that access to natural gas is in the
public interest and the extension of pipelines to rural areas is
necessary for communities to preserve and develop local
economies and enlarge their tax bases. In addition, I believe
the expansion of natural gas infrastructure and services also
represents the most cost effective means of energy conservation.
SB 32 required the Public Utility Commission (PUC) to form a
work group to study feasible ways to expand natural gas
infrastructure to areas that are not currently served by public
utilities. I was among those selected to serve on the work group
that has already convened for several meetings.
One of my primary interests is the tremendous potential benefits
the town of Lakeview could reap from the development of natural
gas infrastructure. The picturesque city of about 2,300 people
is the county seat and largest town located in Oregon’s third
largest county. Like many other small rural Oregon towns,
Lakeview has yet to experience the elusive “economic recovery”
that is occurring in some of the more urban parts of the state.
I believe developing a natural gas utility in Lakeview would
help to provide the kind of economic revitalization that could
help carry its economy far into the future. Both the
availability of natural gas and the potential cost of the
distribution system are within reach.
The Ruby Pipeline, a 680-mile system extending from Wyoming to
Oregon, provides natural gas supplies from the major Rocky
Mountain basins to consumers in California, Nevada and the
Pacific Northwest. The 42-inch pipeline passes about two miles
south of Lakeview.
It has an already installed terminal, as well as a lateral
pipeline, constructed to an industrial site near the south city
limits. Only an adequate source of funding is preventing the
construction of a natural gas distribution system to Lakeview’s
potential residential, commercial and industrial users. One of
the partners in the Ruby pipeline, the state's Oregon Solutions
program, Avista Utilities, the Energy Trust of Oregon, and even
the formation of a municipal gas district offer potential
The planned construction of the Pacific Connector pipeline
from Malin to Jordan Cove could also result in Avista providing
natural gas services to Merrill. The owners of the pipeline have
reportedly agreed to provide access to the pipeline near the
city, and Avista appears to be willing to install the
There is precedence for the kind of infrastructure expansion
that the Legislative Assembly is attempting to achieve through
the work group.
The Rural Electrification Act of 1936 was signed into law by
President Franklin Roosevelt for the purpose of providing
federal loans to help install electricity infrastructure in
rural areas of the United States. The Act resulted in the
electrification of rural America by subsidizing the development
of the needed utility infrastructure.
Likewise, the Communications Act of 1934 provided that all
people in the United States shall have access to rapid,
efficient, nationwide communications service with adequate
facilities at reasonable charges. It created the Universal
Service Fund that operated as a mechanism by which interstate
long distance carriers were assessed to subsidize telephone
service to low-income households and high-cost areas. The
Telecommunications Act of 1996 expanded the traditional
definition of universal service to include affordable,
nationwide telephone service to rural health care providers,
eligible schools and libraries, as well as other services.
Oregon also assesses a Universal Service Surcharge that helps to
provide basic telephone service in high-cost areas, a
Residential Service Protection Fundcharge that helps fund the
telephone assistance and telecommunication device access
programs, and an Emergency 911 Communications Tax that funds the
state’s emergency reporting system. Each of these assessments,
charges and taxes are billed as line items on our monthly
Currently, investor owned electric utility customers in Oregon
pay a “public purpose charge” (PCC) that is equal to three
percent of their monthly utility bill. Investor owned natural
gas utility customers pay a little less.
That surcharge, included as a line item on ratepayers’ monthly
utility bills, collects more than $150 million per year from
investor owned utility ratepayers. More than $21 million per
year is collected from natural gas utility customers.
The PPC was established by Senate Bill 1149 and became effective
March 1, 2002. Nearly three-fourths of the ratepayer money
collected is designated to be spent for energy conservation in
homes and businesses, the building of renewable resource power
plants and other renewable resource projects.
In 2007, Senate Bill 838 amended the PPC law by giving utilities
the ability to ask the PUC for permission to include in rates
the costs of implementing or funding additional cost-effective
energy conservation measures. The PUC requires the utilities to
assess the achievable cost-effective conservation potential in
their service territories. Natural gas is certainly one of the
most cost-effective sources of available energy.
By my calculations, during the past decade, as much as $200
million of the PPC proceeds have been spent largely on solar and
wind energy projects. The return on investment has been
For instance, according to the Department of Energy, Oregon’s
entire solar generation capacity currently amounts to only seven
one-hundredths of one percent of the State’s annual total
electricity generation. Solar energy’s contribution to our
state’s electric generation capacity is hardly measurable,
despite the huge investment of PPC dollars on solar generation
projects. Oregon could provide natural gas infrastructure to
serve many rural communities for a fraction of what is being
spent on these inefficient renewable systems.
The fact of the matter is, it is not wind and solar energy
development that is reducing United States and global greenhouse
gas (GHG) emissions. The United States has an abundance of
natural gas resources. The market-driven development of those
resources has both driven down the cost of natural gas to
historic lows and caused our national GHG emissions to plummet
to mid-1990s levels.
In a newsletter I released last August, I described how the
Bend-La Pine School District has been able to convert 40 percent
of its bus fleet from diesel to liquid natural gas. Aside from
the immediate cost savings of the fuel itself, the school
district has also been able to reduce its hydrocarbon emissions
by 80 percent. The environmental benefits of this conversion are
Lakeview has the distinction of being in an air inversion zone,
and one of five Oregon towns struggling to attain Environmental
Protection Agency air quality attainment goals. Because of that,
the town struggles with how to preserve its air quality without
further damage to its industrial and economic base. Like the
other four towns, the wood stoves being used by many residents
to heat their homes are often blamed for the air quality
The use of natural gas as an affordable home heating substitute
could help solve this very difficult problem, as well as help
spur the kind of private sector investment that any community
needs in order to grow and thrive.
I will continue my efforts with members of the work group, as
well as collaborating with other legislators and interested
parties, to try and develop solutions for funding these natural
gas infrastructure investments. Your ideas and recommendations
are actively solicited.
The work group’s next meeting is scheduled for June 16 in Salem.
Please remember--if we do not stand up for rural Oregon, no one
Doug Senate District 28
In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C.
section 107, any copyrighted material
herein is distributed without profit or
payment to those who have expressed a
prior interest in receiving this
information for non-profit research and
educational purposes only. For more
information go to: