2021 Clean & Affordable Energy Conference Digest

The 2021 Clean and Affordable Energy Conference was hosted by the NW Energy Coalition on June 2nd and June 10th. This year’s conference was virtual and covered the most pressing issues in the Northwest’s energy landscape. These included salmon recovery, and potential changes to the federal hydro system, as well as how to advance equity in the energy space through funding and support for expanded community participation. Panelists discussed how to address regulatory barriers to decarbonizing utilities, and how stakeholders can engage in the NW Power Council’s regional planning processes to support clean, affordable, and reliable service for all Northwest communities.  

Thank you to event sponsors  Earthjustice, Puget Sound Energy, RTO Insider, and Jim Lazar. 

Day 1: June 2, 9am – 12pm (PST)

Opening Remarks: Jacqueline Patterson, Environmental and Climate Justice Director, NAACP 

Patterson began by providing grounding thoughts on the national perspective of the NAACP, looking at the regulatory landscape from a civil rights perspective and analysis. She continued to explain why the work around energy and regulation is done at the NAACP, noting the advancement of racial and civil justice throughout the past 20 years.  

When discussing energy justice for all, there are challenges, and the historical context is important to understand. There has been rampant commoditization, violent extractions and exploration of humans and natural resources. This has impacted trades, manufacturing, financing, and labor. It has also disregarded human rights.

In the energy system, coal facilities have been shown to pollute air and water, and race and economic background play a role in the communities impacted. Living near coal facilities has caused health disparities in African American children with asthma attacks, property value going down, and ultimately led to BIPOC communities paying the cost of these negative effects with their health and finances, but not benefit from the resources.  

Community after community has had to pay the price of poverty with their lives. This has been seen through dramatic cold weather, when power is shut off and in situations where people depend on energy resources for survival – through a respirator, or for heat. 

As we recognize these challenges, we also recognize that we still need solutions. We need clean energy, and to consistently ask ourselves, who is benefiting? Who is paying the price? And, who gets paid? As it currently stands, BIPOC communities are on the frontline of pollution and climate change.  

One solution is to make sure that communities participate in regulatory processes, and then that they see results. We need to make sure we engage with entities that are trusted and engage with communities. If we want to move forward, we have to acknowledge how the past is incorporated into the present. As climate impacts increase, BIPOC communities will continue to be negatively affected, unless we make changes.   

Session 1: Expanding Support for Community Participation in Utility and Regulatory Processes 

The first session of the day discussed how utilities and regulators can improve and expand opportunities for participation and expertise, particularly in environmental justice. Panelists explored the role funding can play in both advocacy at decision-making bodies, and in community-based expertise for specific utility projects. The group also assessed how processes for public input can be designed to support meaningful collaboration with a diverse set of stakeholders.  

The conversation was moderated by Ezell Watson, DEI Program Director at the Oregon Public Utility Commission. Speakers included Jake Wise, DEI Community Outreach Manager at Portland General Electric, Mariel Thuraisingham, Clean Energy Policy Lead at Front and Centered, Ann Rendahl, Commissioner for the Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission, and Jacqueline Patterson from the NAACP. 

Thuraisingham shared about the principles of restorative justice, and how this drives the work at Front and Centered. Restorative justice is about moving forward in a direction towards a more equitable, just, and clean, energy economy. This highlights the experiences of people living in extreme inequities on the basis of historical patterns of oppression. A lot of the work currently being done by Front and Centered casts a light on the systems that are harmful to largely low-income communities of color, and places more attention on bringing people up and elevating those who have been disproportionately harmed. Thuraisingham’s role in Washington is to reflect and put power behind those who are not involved in these processes by elevating and empowering those voices.  

Commissioner Rendahl gave acknowledgment to the system itself and the decisions made that have impacted communities. How the Commission works going forward to hear voices, recognize impacts, and participate in the decisions made by utilities is crucial. Until recently the focus has been on economic and safety impacts but not of all communities. Recent Washington legislation has shined a light on the impacts of the energy system and emphasizes centering BIPOC voices as energy decisions are made.

Wise shared with the group the question of why and why now. We aim to foster procedural inclusion in partnership with communities as we make investments in years to come.  We have to avoid jargon and find better ways to create a greater understanding of processes and the grid at large so we can have more in depth conversations about how we seek to evolve it. What is of paramount importance is to understand connection to the grid and utilities, and understand stories to provide context in a way that is relevant. Patterson continued the conversation in saying that we need to think about creating pathways for community engagement.  

Panelists explored ways to make opportunities to participate in proceedings more accessible. Examples include funding for those who intervene in a regulatory proceeding, providing transportation, multiple ways to engage, translation services on demand, adjusting time, and addressing other barriers to participation.  

Session 2: Salmon Recovery and Federal and State Action 

The second session convened to discuss salmon recovery and federal and state action. There is growing interest among both federal and state policymakers in comprehensive long-term salmon recovery solutions in the Columbia River Basin. This panel examined how federal proposals and the four Governors’ Columbia Basin Collaborative can provide funding and a clear path for meaningful action across the region.  

This discussion was moderated by Giulia Good Stefani, Attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). Panelists included Sam Mace, Director at Save Our Wild Salmon, Maura Brueger, Director of Government and Legislative Affairs at Seattle City Light, and Guy Norman, Washington Council Member for the NW Power and Conservation Council.  

Good Stefani began by recognizing the timeliness of this discussion and providing a brief background to the hydro system in the Pacific Northwest, recent Tribal resolutions, and governmental agreements, saying that one “cannot talk about energy without talking about hydro, and you cannot talk about hydro, without talking about fish.” 

The discussion was opened up to panelists to share their background in this work and then jumped into questions. The first being that with all the momentum, how do we ensure we make progress on this topic and build a path forward?  

Norman started by saying that there is opportunity for collaborative solutions. The Simpson proposal has engaged the region. The Columbia Basin Collaborative is an opportunity to engage stakeholders, and sets up a framework to bring in technical expertise and tribal interests. It is a good time to bring all the options to the table and have further discussions. 

Mace shared that much of her work has been meeting with stakeholders to understand the concerns and impacts. Mace commented that “if we are going to save fish, then we need to support the way of life and culture of fish…We need to be operating with urgency and a real-world plan for getting there, and take advantage of this opportunity with the infrastructure bill.”  

Brueger addressed the need for urgency by calling for a transparent process and pursuit of federal funding for projects that the region can agree on. For BPA, this means looking at the cost impacts for customers and how to replace existing generation. This includes energy efficiency, mobile battery storage, electrification, demand response, grid interactive buildings, and ways to adjust load.   

The rest of the discussion concerned how to ensure that projects get the funding needed, what the feasibility process is, and gaps that need to be addressed in order to move forward. To meet treaty obligations and recover salmon populations, the fish of the Columbia River Basin need big actions. When everyone is able to come together and address these challenges, we can come up with innovative solutions.  

Day 2: June 10, 9am – 12pm (PST)

Opening Remarks: Mary Kipp, President & CEO, Puget Sound Energy 

The effects of climate change are more present than ever. The next five years are mission-critical for our utilities and related industries to have a meaningful impact. Kipp outlined the steps needed for large utilities to make a difference. The first being that we need to innovate – especially around the natural gas system, and find options for alternative energy. Secondly, she emphasized the need to help other industries, like the buildings and transportation sectors, so that utilities can be enablers and not an impediment to decarbonization.  

Kipp said that PSE is looking at its resources and infrastructure to advance the gas transition as quickly as possible. Renewable Natural Gas (RNG) and Hydrogen are possibilities for the future, but these need to be looked at in combination with other energy resources as part of an energy mix, rather than dividing up resources and siloing them. PSE is also looking for regulatory tools to facilitate these changes and transition.

Given the criticality of the near term, PSE is helping customers with energy efficiency and making sure that they have a front row seat to all of the innovative work happening around efficiency. This requires partnering up, and talking with customers about their needs. 

Day 2, Session 1: Regulatory Barriers to Decarbonization and the Future for Gas Utilities 

As gas utilities lean into the decarbonization discussion and advance strategies to transition to non-fossil fuels and energy services, the region must address the regulatory barriers and opportunities facing these utilities. This dialogue explored what roles regulators can play in ensuring the transition away from fossil fuels is equitable for customers, as well as the role for clean alternatives, such as renewable hydrogen and natural gas. 

The panel was moderated by Nancy Hirsh, Executive Director at the NW Energy Coalition. Panelists included: Michael Colvin, Director of Regulatory and Legislative Affairs at the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), Mary Moerlins, Director of Environmental Policy & Corporate Responsibility at NW Natural, Dave Danner, Chair of the Utilities and Transportation Commission, and Alejandra Mejia Cunningham, Building Decarbonization Advocate at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). 

Each panelist began the conversation by sharing the work that grounds them. Mejia-Cunningham shared how the enormity of the challenge, and the opportunities are highly important. To have a smooth transition, time is of the essence, and we need to transform all fields of the utility industry without wasting resources. If we start this now, we can get this done the right way. Any further delays would increase cost and risk. 

Chair Danner agreed this is an urgent issue, and regulators need to figure out how utilities can be reliable to consumers. There may be options in technology, with electrification and energy efficiency, and in decarbonizing gas. Collective actions need to result in reductions and keep all options on the table. 

Colvin emphasized the need for the transition to a decarbonized gas system to be managed and predictable for all stakeholders in order to reduce risks. Regulators need to be in communication with customers and stakeholders, so that they know what is going on.

Workforce support is a key issue that Moerlins raised as part of the discussion of a just transition. Affordability for customers and jobs in the carbon free economy are key issues that can be supported by bio-gas and renewable hydrogen.

All speakers agreed that not all customers will be able to decarbonize their home/ building or vehicle in the same way, and that there are equity issues that must be addressed. Some customers, generally those in wealthier communities, will be able to electrify first, and have more control over their future. Those who cannot afford to decarbonize, in lower to middle income communities, may face higher costs, unless the transition is intentional in securing benefits and directly avoiding negative impacts on specific customer segments.

As regulators address gas utility business models, move to multi-year rate plans, and make regulatory reforms, they need to intentionally open ways for Black, Brown, and Indigenous (BBI) community members and leaders to participate in proceedings.

Day 2, Session 2: Regional Power Planning and the 2021 Power Plan 

The NW Power & Conservation Council will release its draft 2021 Regional Power Plan this summer. This Plan will set a benchmark for resource development in the electric sector for the next five years. Panelists discussed how the Council’s modeling leads to the development of new resources, and what the experts in the region think of the proposed plan. 

The panel was moderated by Jeff Fox, Vice President of Land & Community Affairs at Gallatin Power. Speakers included Pat Oshie, Washington Council Member of the Northwest Power and Conservation Council, Priya Sreedharan, Program Director at GridLab, Mohit Chhabra, Senior Scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council, and Lauren McCloy, Policy Director at the NW Energy Coalition.

Councilmember Oshie began by providing an introduction to the Council and history of the Power Plan. The Council develops a 20-year demand forecast that is developed into five-year action plans. These plans cover reliability, reserve requirements, and estimated Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) resources. He remarked that the Council does not decide what resources stay in the region, and that they make determinations for the environmental cost and benefits, looking at conservation first, then renewable generation, and other resources in the region.

Providing a national perspective, Sreedharan, remarked that this process needs to be thought of in an integrative fashion, rather than in silos. Resource adequacy in the west and throughout the country should be redefined in modeling and planning to more effectively value the diversity of the resources on the system.

Current Council modeling is struggling with many of the transitions in the electric sector. Chhabra called out energy efficiency as needing more value for its peaking benefits. He noted that energy efficiency will be crucial in meeting decarbonization goals and being able to provide effective, equitable, and affordable energy. 

The challenges of power planning and modeling in the age of decarbonization and clean energy goals, are not unique to the NW and are seen across the west. The Power Plan will drive decision making at utilities and BPA so innovation in new modeling will be important. In addition, the panel talked about the need to incorporate new modeling of climate impacts into the system.  

The Council has an immense role as the region seeks to decarbonize, in helping folks understand the regional nature of the grid. The electric grid crosses utility regions and states and there is a need for sharing information and data from utilities and state agencies across the west.