EWEB: Climate Leader or Laggard

Public utility's resource planning priorities need rethinking to secure a just transition for Eugeneans

By Danny Noonan

When people think of Eugene, they often think of hippies with moss growing out of their backs, wet, verdant old-growth forests and a community tucked away under an omnipresent blanket of mist. Yet, as this most recent heat wave and fire season have reminded us, that old vision of Eugene scarcely continues to exist (though the hippies are still around). 

While the past few summers have been the hottest our city has experienced in recorded history, the harrowing truth of our warming climate is that they are also destined to be some of the coolest summers we will see again in our lifetimes.

The reality of our “new normal” is that yesterday’s solutions provide no answers to today’s and tomorrow’s problems. To truly address the climate crisis, we need to mitigate its worst impacts by eliminating our greenhouse gas emissions. The science is clear that this necessitates a full transition off of fossil fuels, on an unprecedentedly rapid timeline. 

Equally importantly, we need to invest in community resilience. Above all, we need to ensure that false solutions are rejected, and that no sections of the community are left behind in the energy transition. Experts have shown that we can achieve this vision, but doing so requires an all-hands-on-deck approach, with stakeholders all moving rapidly in the same direction.  

For this reason, climate advocates in Eugene have grown increasingly frustrated with our customer-owned utility, Eugene Water and Electric Board (EWEB). Despite being at the helm of a utility with one of the least emissions-intensive energy mixes in the country, EWEB has found itself stuck in the past, becoming an unwitting partner of Northwest Natural’s attempts to lock-in fossil fuel infrastructure infrastructure and cast doubt about an all-electric future powered by renewable energy. This includes the utility getting wrapped up in NW Natural’s now-abandoned hydrogen blending project in the Bethel neighborhood, which would have increased air quality issues and explosion risks for Bethel’s residents, for marginal emissions reductions, at an incredible cost.

EWEB’s recent Integrated Resource Plan (IRP) has continued this concerning trend, particularly in the ways that its results have been communicated publicly. We question, for example, why most of EWEB’s media outreach around the IRP has focused on the demand challenges posed by electrification, and the potential need for generation from biomass or small modular nuclear reactors. As Lawson himself acknowledged in his August 3 op-ed in this newspaper’s online edition, these resources would only be needed only in higher-demand scenarios, and by the time they are needed other firm resources such as geothermal could be cost-competitive. 

Similarly, EWEB’s framing of electrification as only a burden on our grid overlooks the potential of heat-pump retrofits, especially when combined with weatherization upgrades, to reduce grid load by replacing less-efficient electric resistance heating. EWEB should be championing electrification and leading on devising innovative load management solutions, not touting false energy solutions.

For this reason, 40 organizations recently submitted a public letter to EWEB, calling for the board to take three concrete steps to bring our utility into the 21st century, and to create a roadmap for a just transition that other utilities and local governments can follow. 

First, EWEB should partner with local community organizations and labor unions to build publicly owned renewable energy generation capacity. Community ownership of electricity generation, built by union labor, is central to securing a truly just energy transition. 

Second, EWEB must expand existing incentives for electrification and distributed solar to drive adoption and increase access to these common sense solutions. EWEB already has strong programs in place, but there is the potential to further improve access to high efficiency appliances such as heat pumps, and remove barriers to homes installing localized solar that will reduce emissions and increase climate resilience. 

Third, as our community transitions to 100 percent clean electricity, we must put in place protections to ensure that it is affordable and accessible to all. EWEB must increase its woefully underfunded bill assistance program, specifically by reducing costs for qualifying households by 50 percent, increasing enrollment through self-verification, and automatic enrolling households currently participating in state and federal low-income support programs.

A community-owned utility like EWEB should reflect community values. Because it already enjoys an over 90 percent decarbonized energy mix, achieving full decarbonization is much less daunting for EWEB than it is for other regional utilities. EWEB therefore has an incredible opportunity before it to demonstrate genuine climate leadership, by delivering a 100 percent emissions-free grid with non-polluting resources. 

By continuing to headline nuclear and biomass, we fear EWEB is shirking from its responsibility to deliver a truly just transition and provide the foundation to a climate-resilient community. Committing to the goals outlined in our recent letter to EWEB above would serve as an important course correction, and we call on EWEB’s Board of Commissioners to take these steps.

Danny Noonan is a climate and energy strategist with the 501(c)(3) nonprofit, Breach Collective, and lives in Eugene.