By Connie Peterson

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In 2016, I joined many other Bend-area environmental activists, concerned citizens and businesses in working to pass Oregon’s historic coal-to-clean law, which required that our state’s energy providers get off dirty coal power and transition to cleaner energy by 2030. But there’s more and more evidence that our planet — and our pocketbooks — should not have to wait that long.

Last year the Oregon Public Utility Commission required PacifiCorp, the parent company of Pacific Power (which provides the majority of our electricity in Bend), to answer a basic question: How much does it cost to run the aging coal plants that provide over 60 percent of your power, compared to cleaner energy sources like wind and solar that drop in price with each passing month?

This is a reasonable question, and one that regulators, whose job it is to protect ratepayers by finding the lowest cost energy, would want answers to, and be able to share with customers of Pacific Power.

Shockingly, our state’s utility commission announced earlier this month that they will side with PacifiCorp and keep the public in the dark, even though Washington state utility commissioners ruled that Pacific Power customers in that state were entitled to this information.

The company has now sued to stop the release of the information in Washington, claiming that the cost of operating a coal plant compared to clean energy is a “trade secret.”

The burden of Pacific Power’s attachment to coal should matter to all of us — for financial as well as environmental reasons. An independent analysis of PacifiCorp’s coal-burning power plants commissioned by the Sierra Club showed that Bend’s primary utility could retire most of its coal fleet tomorrow, replace it with new wind, solar or market purchases and save its customers money.

The analysis found that half the utility’s coal fleet was uncompetitive compared to similar solar projects, and more than 80 percent was more expensive than wind. Replacing that uneconomic coal with new wind projects would save customers a whopping $2.8 billion on electricity bills in the coming years.

Part of the reason that coal is so expensive is that the utility’s coal plants are getting more expensive to run and maintain, much like a car with 250,000 miles on the odometer. The report found that operating and maintenance costs of PacifiCorp’s coal fleet increased by 53 percent between 2009 and 2016. Those costs are passed on to Bend families and businesses, and there’s no telling how much higher they will go in the next 12 years. Yet PacifiCorp still intends to run their expensive coal plants until they are forced to stop by state law in 2030.

Making the switch from coal now would not only save customers money, it could improve our health and help bring clean energy jobs into our community, like the recently reported and exciting project being undertaken by Facebook and PacifiCorp in Prineville and the GCL Oregon solar project in Jefferson County.

However, much more is possible! Pacific Power’s apparent determination to cling to expensive, unhealthy and environmentally damaging out-of-state coal plants puts Bend’s business owners and households at risk of paying more for dirty energy when there are plentiful cleaner, cheaper options that can create jobs here in Oregon.

Further, PacifiCorp’s egregious insistence on keeping their customers in the dark on the true cost of coal-generated power is unacceptable and prevents an honest discussion about Bend’s energy future, which local citizens are hard at work planning in the city’s recently formed Climate Action Plan Steering Committee.

We deserve and should demand better from Pacific Power and also Oregon regulators, who are supposed to be holding utility companies accountable on behalf of citizens. It’s time for an open, data-driven conversation about the price of coal and corresponding action.

— Connie Peterson lives in Bend.