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Portland looks to analytics, clean transit to meet 2050 renewable energy goal

Officials in Portland and Multnomah County, Oregon, say data, partnerships and political willpower can help them hit their goal of operating on fully renewable energy by 2050.

Jason Shueh
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Jason Shueh Tech Editor

Jason Shueh is a tech editor at StateScoop with a specialty for civic tech and smart city news. His articles and writing have covered numerous subj...

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A pledge by Portland, Oregon, and outlying Multnomah County to have 100 percent renewable energy by 2050 is focusing the region's thinking on how to get there.

Nathan Howard, a senior policy adviser for Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler, said that while some view the goal as overly ambitious or a well-intentioned half measure, the move will codify environmental sustainability for the two communities as they work with state and federal agencies to invest in green technologies. 

Some of these sustainability efforts will rely on transit advances like transitioning Portland's fleet of buses and city vehicles into fully electric transportation. In addition, the city could find even greater gains toward its renewable energy goal by using data and analytics to track outcomes and efficiencies of city operations.

“We have a lot of people that are saying that 2050 is extremely ambitious and asking us, ‘How can you get there.’ Howard said. “Yet we have plenty of data that shows that we can do it if we make the right investments and if there is the political will. We're to kind of drawing a line in the sand.”

The city's energy data currently shows progress in these areas — with carbon emissions dropping an average of 2.2 percent between 2000 and 2013, and 1.5 percent between 2013 and 2030. Going forward, the new commitment will look toward managing progress on the city and county's Climate Action Plan. The plan, updated in 2015, outlines a five-year strategy to reduce carbon emissions and measure success data metrics in resident health, watershed vitality, air quality and the region’s transportation footprint and transit.

The goal for renewable energy by 2050 incorporates a second goal to transition electricity demand to renewable sources by 2035 and even applies to additional energy needs like replacing fossil fuels used by vehicles. The announcement furthers the city and county's work to deepen private sector investments and partnerships that produce low-carbon, environmentally friendly products. 

Howard said feedback from the community has been mixed with some saying it is too optimistic, others arguing it is too lax, and more still saying the energy goal would be too demanding.  

In a statement, Wheeler did not dismiss the goal’s grandiose intentions.

“Getting our community to 100 percent renewable energy is a big goal,’’ Wheeler said. “And while it is absolutely ambitious, it is a goal that we share with Nike, Hewlett Packard, Microsoft, Google, GM, Coca Cola, Johnson & Johnson and Walmart. We have a responsibility to lead this effort in Oregon.’’

Echoing the mayor’s comments, the county’s Chair Deborah Kafoury, County Commissioner Jessica Vega Pederson and Bobby Lee, the director of economic development at the Portland Development Commission, expressed similar support and endorsements. They lauded what prospects the measure held for future generations, its necessity for the environment and the potential growth for green industry and economic development.

“This is a pledge to our children’s future,’’ Kafoury said. “100 percent renewables means a future with cleaner air, a stable climate and more jobs and economic opportunity.’’

Howard said the city will further this aim next month by introducing a new resolution that attaches renewable energy to city law. This sets a foundation for the city enact future the laws and agendas that isolate utility and infrastructure investment in environmentally friendly goods and services.

“What we wanted to say here is that now we’re going to double down and be a bit more aggressive in reducing our carbon emissions while putting pressure on our utility partners to work towards this 100 percent renewable energy goal.”

Yet the city and county are also realistic that they cannot succeed alone. As with the city of New York that announced a similar goal in 2015 to power 100 percent of the city government on renewable energy by 2050, support will likely be required from state leadership. For instance, New York Gov. Andew Cuomo is helping New York City reach its goal with an initiative unveiled in January to get the state to 2,400 megawatts of renewable energy from sources like wind and solar.

John Wasiutynski, director of the office of sustainability, said the county and city’s partnership is counting on legislative action to propel progress. Oregon’s Senate Bill 1547, signed into law by Oregon Gov. Kate Brown, requires Oregon to halt electricity usage generated by coal by 2030. Further, it demands 50 percent of the state’s electricity comes from renewable energy by 2040. Wasiutynski said this kind of state and local legislation are expected to be major catalyst for change.

“We've got to be bold and we've got move towards a decarbonized economy,” Wasiutynski said. “And what we're saying is we're going to work with our utility partners to accelerate that timeline here in Multomnah County and accelerate that time for the state too.”

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