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10 questions on EVs for the CEO of Portland General Electric

A little over two years ago, Maria Pope took the helm of Oregon utility Portland General Electric, which provides electricity services to close to 900,000 customers across the state. The utility has emerged as a leader when it comes to helping Oregonians — residents, businesses, public transit, fleet providers — to adopt electric vehicles, and earlier this month at the Bloomberg Mobility Summit in San Francisco, Pope took the stage to talk about the utility’s efforts to accelerate the electrification of transportation. 

After Pope’s onstage conversation, GreenBiz sat down with her to chat about all things electric transportation and what things a utility can do to do usher in the new EV era. This conversation was lightly edited for clarity and length:

Katie Fehrenbacher: You said on stage that you believe EVs will be a net benefit to the grid. How is Portland General Electric (PGE) creating the ecosystem where EVs will be a net benefit to the electrical grid?

Maria Pope: First of all, I think it’s really important to put into context where we’re going as a utility in terms of addressing climate change. As we add increasing amounts of renewables on the system — today we’re at 40 percent renewable and in just a few years we’ll be 50 percent and we’re not stopping there — as we add solar power, wind power, other natural resources … what we need most of is new renewables to come from the wind sector. The wind tends to blow at night a little bit more than it blows during the day. And as a result, if we can take that incremental wind and charge vehicles during the night, it’s a win-win for everyone; it keeps the grid more stable.

The other thing we’ve seen west-wide, we’ve all heard about the duck curve. In the middle of the day, we’re generating excess power in California, which is going to Oregon, lowering our prices in the middle of the day, allowing for people who want to charge in that middle of the day … As you know, energy has to be equal from generation to use on an instantaneous basis. So being able to store and choose when we charge is really important.

Skipping forward into the future, I can see a world where we’ll actually be using that same battery that might be in a bus or in a car back to the grid to provide stability. That’s not yet something that we’re implementing, but certainly as we put in infrastructure, we’re [going to be] creating infrastructure that will be bidirectional to allow for the bidirectional flow of electrons.

Fehrenbacher: Are these technology solutions? Education solutions? How do you create a system for EVs to be a benefit?

Pope: So I think it’s an all-of-the-above. As we look at the four major areas that are a challenge for the transformation of the transportation sector, we’re looking at price, we’re looking at the product and the availability of buses or cars that are electric, we’re looking at customer awareness and we’re also looking at infrastructure. We’re addressing all of these things in connection with our partners, whether it be Daimler Trucks or whether it be our transit authority, TriMet, or whether it be Lyft or whether it be individual customers or dealerships. So we’re really looking at a holistic approach.

A couple of examples would be a terrific educational program that we just launched with Portland public schools around climate change, with fifth-grade climate activists at one of our local schools who are creating, along with the entire school system, an open-source educational platform that they will be able to use.

Fehrenbacher: Eventually when more complicated technologies like vehicle-to-grid become more commercial, what does PGE want to do?

Pope: We see this as a continuum. So right now we’re implementing some of the basics around increasing our amount of renewable energy, building out our smart grid with communications networks, with the interoperability, and the vehicle-to-grid will just be an extension of what we’re doing and the groundwork that we’re laying. The nice thing about all of this infrastructure is that it also enhances our reliability and resiliency, whether that be in periods of wildfire or earthquakes, or other natural disasters. All of this works together to create a safe, more reliable and more affordable energy infrastructure.

Fehrenbacher: You mentioned a partnership with Lyft. Do you think the ride-hailing companies need to be more aggressive around electrification? If so, how do you push these companies toward that goal?

Pope: We think everyone should be more aggressive around electrification. We believe that we are a leader but also a convener for a clean energy future. This will take everyone to come together and change how we do things and to look at doing things differently.

Fehrenbacher: For ride hailing specifically, has PGE worked with those companies to try to move the needle on electrification?

Pope: We have a similar program with Lyft and a great partnership. If you’re in Portland and in Oregon, you can elect to use an all-electric green vehicle on your Lyft app and that vehicle was undoubtedly charged at one of our charging stations, and we’ve made it really easy for them to deal with billing and payment information and made it a seamless, frictionless process for our customers. Lyft has been a great partner in helping us figure out what works for them and what works for us as we bring this together.

Fehrenbacher: Also onstage you mentioned working with newer players such as Amazon, which is deploying 100,000 EVs eventually. How does PGE or a utility in general work with such a big company on such a new and evolving initiative?

Pope: I think we work with them at two levels. We work with their corporate leadership to really understand directionally where they’re going and to understand the perspectives that each of us bring. Then locally we work with each one of their fulfillment centers and local management to make sure that we have the energy infrastructure that they need when they want it and how they want it in terms of deploying their electric vehicles.

Fehrenbacher: You also talked onstage about PGE’s own electric fleet. Can you discuss those vehicles a bit?

Pope: Many of our single passenger vehicles are electric already, and what we’ve really looked at is how do we get deeper penetration into our work vehicles? So our trucks, all the way through, to make sure that we’re not just talking about electrification but really setting an example. And it’s very helpful for us as we look at our own fleet and we understand charging and how we need to move forward to be able to partner with others so when we’re talking to Daimler that makes electric vehicles in Oregon, we’re able to understand the ecosystem in a 360-degree fashion as a user, but also as a supplier. So it’s really an exciting future as we move forward.

Fehrenbacher: What else should I know about what PGE is doing around e-mobility?

Pope: I think the most important thing to know is that we are leading. That we’re partnering. And that our customers want to be leaders and they want us to be electric suppliers and infrastructure enablers. And it’s really exciting to have the opportunities that we have at the time that we have. There’s no question in my mind that we’re at a pivotal point and that we will begin to see the electrification of the transportation sector scale probably even more rapidly than we can envision.  

Fehrenbacher: When you joined the company did you imagine that transportation would come under your purview?

Pope: No, I knew that whatever we would be doing that energy is critical to the customers that we serve, to their lives, to the businesses, to the safety and health of our communities. And I knew that providing a critical product and service within the state of Oregon was really something that was important to be able to do and do well however we’re needed as we lead this transformation.

Fehrenbacher: On the commercial fleet front, do you work with companies trying to electrify their buses or commuter vans, etc?

Pope: We’re working with a number of groups. I mentioned Amazon, but we also have UPS and Sysco, the food delivery service. We have a number of businesses, large and small, in our service territory that wants to rely on us, not just for the electricity and for the infrastructure but also for the know-how, which is one of the reasons it is so important for us to transition our fleets so that we can be partners as we move forward and share experiences.


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Offshore wind is gearing up for liftoff

Imagine a source of clean, renewable electricity that could fight climate change, has been used in countries around the world for almost three decades and produces enough electricity to power tens of millions of homes. Then imagine that this source was growing faster than any other form of electricity except for solar power, and that states along the Eastern seaboard had estimated that this source could create tens of thousands of jobs. Finally, imagine if this source of electricity just happened to be available right next to our largest population centers, eliminating the need to build long transmission lines.

Well, you don’t have to imagine. This miraculous source of electricity does exist — it’s offshore wind. Given the enormous potential, surely the United States must be leading the way, right? Unfortunately, no. We’re barely on the map, but if you close your eyes and imagine all the pieces falling into place, you can almost feel the ocean wind on your face. That’s how close we are to launching the offshore wind industry.

Offshore wind origins

The first commercial offshore wind farm went up in Europe in 1991, almost 30 years ago. From 2010 to 2018, the global offshore wind market has been growing at nearly 30 percent per year. According to the International Energy Administration (PDF), as of mid-2019, over 5,500 turbines were producing electricity for 17 countries around the world. Collectively, they provide up to 23 gigawatts (GW) of electricity over the course of a year, enough to power 17 million homes.

Offshore wind in the U.S.

In 2016, the first offshore wind farm came online in the United States off the coast of Rhode Island, consisting of just five 6-megawatt (MW) turbines. Since then, states from Maine to Virginia have begun to recognize offshore wind’s clean energy and economic potential. As of the end of 2019, seven states have set goals to collectively procure nearly 27 GW of offshore wind by 2035. Once built, it will be enough to power 20 million homes.

Creating jobs and protecting marine life

In addition to the clean energy produced, there also could be between 50,000 and 120,000 jobs created. A 2017 study co-authored by New York, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and the Clean Energy States Alliance found that developing 8 GW of offshore wind in the region by 2030 could create between 16,000 and 36,000 full-time jobs. States have committed to 4.5 times as much offshore wind.

And the potential for job creation is only going up. Currently, most offshore wind turbines are put on top of tall metal piles that are hammered into the ocean floor. Not only is the hammering a threat to marine wildlife, but the piles are fabricated overseas. But as we wrote in a blog in July, New York has awarded a contract to Equinor to build 816 MW of wind off the southern coast of Long Island. Equinor’s turbines will be on piles held up by huge cement bases. Those foundations will be made in New York.

By simply avoiding the need for pile driving, these foundations are also inherently safer for wildlife, including the critically endangered North Atlantic Right Whale. Only about 400 of these majestic creatures are left in the world, and the noise of pile driving can damage their hearing and drive them away from important feeding and breeding grounds.

NRDC, working with the National Wildlife Foundation and the Conservation Law Foundation, entered into an agreement with another offshore wind developer, Vineyard Wind, around a set of practices that reduces the noise from pile driving and aims to minimize the potential exposure by limiting when pile driving can occur to the times of year when the whales are least likely to be present.

But avoiding the noise altogether and creating more local jobs certainly makes the so-called “quiet foundations” something worth encouraging.

A look ahead – 2020

2020 will be a year of more progress, and while we won’t see construction start on the first utility-scale offshore wind project in U.S. waters, we should see many projects moving forward. The Vineyard Wind project was on the verge of receiving final approval last summer, but at the last minute the Secretary of the Interior delayed the approval and required a supplemental analysis of cumulative impactsWhile some have seen a silver lining to the delay in that it likely will reduce the risk of litigation in the future, others see the long arm of the oil and gas industry. Regardless, the environmental impact statement should be finalized by next summer and then we’ll see if the Trump administration really believes in a so-called “all-of-the-above energy strategy” that includes offshore wind.

In any case, New York is on track to sign another round of contracts next year, and Virginia utility Dominion is expected to complete a small 12 MW offshore wind demonstration project as a first step toward a significantly larger 2,600 MW project scheduled to come online in 2026. These are only the most recent pieces of the launch pad that continues to come together at a breakneck pace. One recent study (PDF) estimates that the offshore wind industry will grow to a $70 billion industry in the United States by 2030. We’re in the final countdown.