Lewis & Clark’s Green Energy Institute aims to lead western states toward a clean energy transition
Over the past 15 years, renewable energy development in the United States has expanded at a breathtaking rate, with wind energy capacity increasing by 2,900% and solar by an astonishing 180,000%, according to federal government and industry reports.
First, the good news for clean-energy proponents…
Over the past 15 years, renewable energy development in the United States has expanded at a breathtaking rate, with wind energy capacity increasing by 2,900 percent and solar by an astonishing 180,000 percent, according to federal government and industry reports.
“The U.S. renewable energy sector over the past several years has seen an incredible surge in deployment of both wind and solar throughout the country,” says Melissa Powers JD ’01, professor of law and director of the Green Energy Institute at Lewis & Clark Law School. Launched five years ago within the law school’s Environmental, Natural Resources, and Energy Law Program, the institute pursues a mission of developing comprehensive strategies to further the transition to a 100 percent renewable energy grid in order to combat climate change.
The encouraging growth in renewable energy is the result of a number of factors, Powers explains, including state policies mandating that utilities obtain a certain percentage of their electricity from renewable resources. Half the states in the nation are aiming to increase renewable energy development, with Hawai‘i setting the most aggressive goal of obtaining 100 percent of its electricity from renewable energy by 2045.
In recent years, the Obama administration instituted stricter regulations for the fossil fuel industry, and offered tax credits and other economic incentives for renewable energy production and investment. Meanwhile, the cost of renewable energy has declined rapidly, particularly for solar power. And overall, renewable technology has greatly improved, including the capacity for storage, which has long been a major obstacle.
But now, the bad news…
Wind and solar still account for only 10 percent of the nation’s total electricity supply, a sobering statistic for those who believe renewables are essential to battling global climate change. The Trump administration, which actively supports fossil fuels, is trying to undo Obama-era climate change policies. It has proposed to enact various destabilizing policies, including repeals of federal subsidies for wind and solar, and it recently imposed tariffs on foreign-produced solar panels, which could stifle solar development.
So, despite better technology, lower costs, and strong public support for renewables, “We are at risk, I believe, for a big dip in renewable energy development and deployment if all these changes happen at the federal level,” Powers says. “The industry is at an inflection point, and because of the ramifications for global climate change, we can’t afford to go backwards.”
But Powers and her team at the Green Energy Institute are only beginning to gear up in the fight for a clean energy future. In just a few short years, the institute has positioned itself as an increasingly influential leader in the renewable energy space on both the regional and national levels. Its work so far includes a number of initiatives: a series of detailed reports and other publications to guide Oregon and others toward a cleaner energy future; Charged Debate: A Renewable Energy Policy Blog, which features writing by lawyers and law students; and conferences and other events at Lewis & Clark to convene stakeholders in the renewable energy sector.
“You need big brains working on these projects, and that’s where Melissa and her team come in,” says Roby Roberts BS ’79, vice president of communications and government affairs at EDP Renewables North America and a key organizer with Powers of a major clean energy conference last October at the law school.
Within this challenging landscape, the institute is embarking on a particularly ambitious project: the Western Energy Blueprint, a comprehensive strategic plan to guide the western states, and some parts of Canada and Mexico, toward a clean energy future. Powers explains that with the exception of Denmark—which, not coincidentally, is where she studied clean energy transition as a Fulbright scholar—no other nation or region has attempted to lay out a clear path to a fossil fuel–free future that encompasses every consideration, from the political landscape to the technological possibilities.
“In the U.S., we do it piecemeal—an incentive here, a mandate there—but without any clear agreement or understanding of how we will rapidly eliminate fossil fuels from our energy system to meet our climate goals,” says Powers. She believes a broad strategic plan, with the input of many stakeholders, is essential if the West is to wean off fossil fuels, an increasingly urgent need given climate change.
“When we start thinking about transitioning away from fossil fuels in terms of electricity, heating, and transportation, we’re talking about profound structural changes to our energy system,” says Powers. “And when you make profound structural changes to anything, you start with a plan or blueprint.”
When we start thinking about transitioning away from fossil fuels in terms of electricity, heating, and transportation, we’re talking about profound structural changes to our energy system. And when you make profound structural changes to anything, you start with a plan or blueprint.” Melissa Powers JD ’01Professor of Law and Director of the Green Energy Institute
The institute’s blueprint will examine all aspects of transitioning the western states to renewable energy, from technological and economic concerns to political realities and environmental impact. It will also provide a detailed guide for implementation of its recommendations. Powers is currently pitching the project to potential funders, hoping to attract the support of foundations or others that fund climate and energy work. Her goal is to complete the blueprint within three years, which she says is both too short in terms of the project’s complexity and too long given the rapid pace of climate change.
But she views the planning work as essential: “The reality is, if we don’t do the planning, there’s going to be that much more delay in weaning off fossil fuels.”
If funding comes through, the institute will have to ramp up quickly to develop the blueprint. Although it has a small staff and a committed group of law students who assist with the institute’s work, the blueprint will require experts from many fields to contribute, Powers says. She envisions partnering with the private sector, including companies and consultants that work in the energy sector; economists who can help determine cost-benefit ratios; and other experts. The institute will also seek input from organizations that focus on natural resources and species protection, communities that could be affected by a shift to renewables, and other stakeholders.
“In some ways, we’ll have to act as a start-up in the sense of trying to get buy-in from partners and investors who recognize the necessity and value of this project,” she says. “We’ll also need to tap into their people power and expertise.”
Since electricity grids are set up differently in different regions of the country—and the availability of resources such as wind varies so greatly—it makes sense to model a plan by geographical region, she says. The western part of North America, with its abundance of natural resources including hydropower, is particularly well poised to wean off fossil fuels almost entirely, Powers says. “Everything indicates that we have more than enough renewable resources in the West to rely on clean energy.”
But to gain the support of policy makers, business leaders, and other stakeholders, the blueprint will need to answer many questions, from where best to site wind turbines to how to incentivize renewable development.
Powers believes that initial support for the project, especially in Oregon, will come from the private sector. With the exception of California, the agencies in western states do not have adequate authority or resources to focus on the energy transition in a comprehensive way, she says. Powers would like to see the creation of a state agency in Oregon that can guide the state’s transition to clean energy, but it will be a challenge. A bill last session to restructure the Oregon Department of Energy and authorize it to focus on clean energy failed, in part, because of antigovernment sentiment, she says.
But those hurdles can be overcome, she believes, and states will have to take the lead in renewable development given the Trump administration’s stance on climate change. “Based on our federal politics, we need to think on a subnational level,” she says.
The institute’s mission couldn’t be more pressing, even existential. There’s no question that if we don’t stop using energy like we are, the planet is doomed, Powers warns. “If we fight that reality, we’ll be stuck,” she says. “But if we accept that reality, we can focus on doing good.”
Elaine McArdle is a Portland-based writer who often writes on law-related topics.
Conference Explores How to Re-Energize the West
How can western states position themselves to play a global leadership role in developing clean energy to combat climate change?
A group of key stakeholders, including politicians and business leaders, addressed that question at an October conference sponsored by the law school’s Green Energy Institute. Participants discussed next steps toward advancing a clean energy transition for Oregon, California, and other western states.
Re-Energizing the West Conference: The Western Clean Energy Future drew major speakers, including U.S. Senator Jeff Merkley of Oregon; U.S. Congressman Earl Blumenauer BA ’70, JD ’76 of Oregon’s Third District; and U.S. Congressman Jerry McNerney of California’s Ninth District, who is an engineer and energy specialist. All three spoke about the pressing need for clean energy as the future, as did leaders from renewable energy companies and climate-related nonprofits, state regulatory agencies, and trade associations. The sessions were designed to highlight different perspectives; for example, the transportation session featured a representative from the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers as well as the California Electric Transportation Coalition.
Even though the 100-plus attendees represented varied interests, they expressed perhaps surprising consensus on at least one point: Climate change is real, and the consequences for the planet and the human race are deeply concerning, says Melissa Powers JD ’01, director of the institute. A group of conservative panelists made their case for addressing climate change and for a low-carbon future, although they agreed that politicization of the issue makes progress difficult, Power says.
“The takeaway was that we see so much opportunity and yet simultaneously so much uncertainty in the renewable energy realm,” Powers says. State agencies have insufficient legal authority right now to address climate change, and business leaders see a lot of economic opportunity in the field but a political landscape that is unpredictable, if not hostile, in some quarters. “We had really good discussions, but it’s clear we need to have a lot more in-depth policy conversations on how to achieve our goals,” she adds.
The conference was so successful that its organizers, including Roby Roberts BS ’79, vice president of communications and government affairs at EDP Renewables North America, are eager to follow up with a similar event in the near future.
And Roberts, for one, is optimistic about the path ahead. “The biggest challenge is changing from an old system to a new one, and a lot of that is just regulatory inertia,” he says. Convening leaders committed to creating “an efficient, clean, reliable energy system—a system that I have no doubt is the future” is one important step.