Energy: A Climate Change Problem – and Solution


The Oregon Department of Energy Director explains how energy has both been a key contributor to human-caused climate change and could be a solution

SALEM – When the legislature failed to act on climate change earlier this year, Governor Brown stepped up to address the crisis. In March, she took executive action, directing agencies to do everything in their power to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and prepare for a changing climate. The significant actions outlined in her Executive Order 20-04 recognize the challenges our state faces from climate change and the benefits of action to reduce emissions.

As the head of the Oregon Department of Energy (ODOE), I am excited for my agency to do its part to implement this executive order. How energy is generated and used in Oregon has a significant effect on climate change. We recently submitted our agency plan to Governor Brown, outlining how we intend to implement the executive order. It’s now available on our website.

In our 2018 Biennial Energy Report, we reported that about 80 percent of harmful greenhouse gas emissions in Oregon come from daily energy use – turning on our lights, heating our homes and businesses, and traveling to our destinations. The energy sector isn’t insulated from the climate change effects it helps cause. Climate change will affect electricity demand, energy reliability, energy supply, and transportation infrastructure.

Warmer temperatures and more frequent heat waves mean more energy will be needed to cool our homes and workplaces, contributing to a higher summer peak electricity demand.

“The Nation’s energy system is already affected by extreme weather events, and due to climate change, it is projected to be increasingly threatened by more frequent and longer-lasting power outages affecting critical energy infrastructure and creating fuel availability and demand imbalances. The reliability, security, and resilience of the energy system underpin virtually every sector of the U.S. economy. Cascading impacts on other critical sectors could affect economic and national security.”

– The Fourth National Climate Assessment, 2018

With climate change, the Pacific Northwest will likely experience more rain instead of snow in the winter, which could shift decades-long patterns of when hydropower is plentiful across the region. The region will also likely see lower overall water availability and more drought.

Lower water availability and warmer air and water temperatures are also likely to make energy generation, transmission, and distribution systems operate less efficiently. According to the National Energy Technology Laboratory, natural gas, coal, nuclear, bioenergy, and geothermal power plants are all adversely affected by elevated air temperatures. In addition, warmer temperatures increase line losses and decrease the carrying capacity of electric transmission and distribution lines.

Wildfire near Oregon 138, east of Glide.  Photo: Oregon Department of Transportation
Wildfire near Oregon 138, east of Glide. Photo: Oregon Department of Transportation

Increasing periods of extreme heat and dry weather are prolonging the wildfire season and resulting in more frequent wildfires across Oregon’s landscape that heighten the risk for damage to electric infrastructure. There is also increasing concern about the potential, given these conditions, for electric infrastructure to ignite wildfires. In fact, this potential is so serious that utilities in California are proactively shutting off power in the most extreme circumstances to reduce risk, leaving consumers without electricity for as long as several days. These events not only create hardships for consumers, but have major implications for the energy industry. For example, California utility Pacific Gas & Electric filed for bankruptcy in what some have called the first climate change-caused bankruptcy of a major corporation.

The Energy Sector is Part of the Solution:

Oregon is already taking action to fight climate change by reducing energy use, decarbonizing our energy mix, and supporting clean transportation fuels. These actions, bolstered by the Governor’s executive order, not only reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but they also save money, help the environment, and make Oregon more resilient.

Energy efficiency is the cleanest, least expensive, and second-largest electricity resource in Oregon (behind hydropower), as well as important tool for greenhouse gas reductions in the natural gas sector. Maximizing energy efficiency and smart-grid technologies in our homes, schools, offices, farms, and industries can lower energy use and costs while reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Following the directive in the executive order, ODOE will increase energy efficiency in the built environment by establishing and updating energy efficiency standards for appliances, ensuring that our state’s standards are at least equivalent to other West Coast jurisdictions.

Solar on Coos Bay Fire & Rescue Department
Solar on Coos Bay Fire & Rescue Department

The transportation sector is the largest and growing source of greenhouse gas emissions in Oregon. Increasing the availability of cleaner fuels like electricity, renewable natural gas, and hydrogen, as well as alternative transportation modes like walking, biking, carpool, and public transportation, leads to more choices for consumers. Because Oregon imports nearly all of its liquid transportation fuels, accelerating the adoption of low- or zero-emission vehicles also increases our energy independence by encouraging the use of locally-produced fuel like electricity generated from wind, solar, and hydropower.

Transitioning to home-grown, locally generated low-carbon resources like wind, solar, hydro, renewable natural gas, and geothermal, will diversify our energy mix and reduce our reliance on volatile global energy markets.

Taking action in the energy sector isn’t just about fighting climate change. It also means cleaner air, increased energy independence, new energy-related jobs, and more transportation choices.

How Oregonians Can Help:

There are ways Oregonians can join in the fight against climate change, even during the current COVID-19 pandemic: look into installing more energy efficient appliances, heating equipment, or windows; sign up for your utility’s renewable or green power program; invest in solar panels for your home or business; and make your next vehicle purchase an electric or hybrid model. Consider walking, riding a bike, or using public transit (following COVID-19 guidelines) for your commute. If you want to make a change at your home, business, organization, or school, our experts at the Oregon Department of Energy are here to help with advice and resources. Learn about Oregon’s energy and contact us through our website:

About Author

Janine Benner is the director of Oregon Department of Energy.

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