The collaborative model has been tried with success in other parts of the country besides California. In Portland, OR, the participation of environmentalists and consumer advocates in a utility resource planning process led to a recent decision by Portland General Electric’s board to close Oregon’s only nuclear plant by 1996. Energy reporter and IC volunteer Mark Worth contributed this assessment.
A picture of environmentalists and utility executives sitting down at the same table and talking to each other without voices raised is near the bottom of the list of images that come to mind when nuclear power is discussed. And there’s no place where such a reality would be expected less than in Portland, OR, where the operator of a nuclear power plant and environmentalists have been bitter enemies for more than 15 years.
Since opening the Trojan Nuclear Plant in 1976, majority owner Portland General Electric Co. has been the target of continuous salvos from anti-nuclear activists, who have been willing to accept nothing less than an immediate closure of the plant. Trojan, about an hour’s drive northwest of Portland on the Oregon side of the Columbia River, has had its share of regulatory and public-image troubles – most significantly, cracking within the huge heat-exchangers that carry super-hot radioactive water from the plant’s reactor core.
Beyond the financial drain on PGE, Trojan’s troubles have supplied a steady flow of ammunition to anti-nuclear power groups. Nonetheless, two statewide ballot initiatives seeking to close the plant, as well as a slew of petitions to federal and state regulators, all have been defended successfully by Portland General. (Two more citizen initiatives seeking to close Trojan immediately are on Oregon’s November 3 statewide ballot.)
Earlier this year, however, the two sides made a major move toward working together – instead of against each other. As Portland General was preparing its bi-annual resource strategy, the company agreed to sit down with environmental and consumer advocates in a cooperative search for the cheapest way for PGE to generate electricity for its 600,000 customers in northwest Oregon.
Two advisory groups spent many summer days talking energy strategy with PGE managers. The result: Portland General agreed to put up $150,000 for the two groups to hire independent consultants to scrutinize, among other things, how PGE decided that running the Trojan plant for another 19 years was cheaper than shutting it down and finding power somewhere else.
In their studies, the independent consultants disputed PGE’s contention that it could run Trojan more efficiently and for less money than it had in the past. The consultants also took a close look at the company’s reasons for dismissing alternatives to operating the plant, such as expanded conservation programs and more environmentally friendly power sources.
Few people – including PGE officials – expected the company to seriously consider the consultants’ findings. Portland General is a private company, its leaders said, and while it is subject to some federal and state oversight, some thought the consultants were poking their heads too far into the utility’s business.
At a mid-August meeting, however, PGE’s board of directors decided unexpectedly that "phasing out" the Trojan plant over the next four years would be cheaper than trying to run the plant until its license expires in 2011. Activists called the decision a victory, not just for the anti-nuclear movement, but also for the collaborative process.
The decision to close the plant is just the first step in the conversion of the utility to a more sustainable energy base. Now, environmentalists and utility officials are working to find replacement energy, and that may be the real test of their collaborative relationship.