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Pacific Power proposes 10% rate increase for irrigation customers

PORTLAND — One of Oregon’s largest electric utilities is seeking a 10% rate increase for irrigation customers in part to help pay for more renewable energy and transmission upgrades.

Pacific Power submitted its request for a general rate revision to the Oregon Public Utility Commission on Feb. 14. The PUC held public hearings by telephone and video conference on April 2 and 13 to discuss the proposal. New rates would not go into effect until 2021.

The timing, however, is not ideal as the coronavirus pandemic has shuttered non-essential businesses, helping to drive down commodity prices while farmers and ranchers face labor shortages and supply chain disruptions.

Overall, Pacific Power wants to raise rates by an average of 1.6%, collecting an additional $21.6 million per year. Most residential customers would pay an extra $4.03 on their monthly bills, the utility says.

It is nonetheless a difficult request given the circumstances, as nearly 300,000 Oregonians have filed for unemployment over the four weeks ending April 11, according to the latest figures from the state Employment Department.

“Clearly, these proposals were made before COVID-19 was on anyone’s radar,” said Tom Gauntt, a Pacific Power spokesman. “We know that the disruption and pain caused by the virus will play a part in this ongoing process.”

The rate hike for Pacific Power’s 7,984 irrigation customers in Oregon would be even steeper — 10% — according to the PUC filing. Gauntt said this would be partially offset by a projected 4.6% decrease in fuel costs, thanks to wider adoption of cheaper renewable energy like wind, solar and hydro power.

Irrigators could also lower their costs through a new program aimed at shifting their energy usage to off-peak hours. For example, Gauntt said farmers could save as much as 8% by not turning on their pumps from 2 to 6 p.m. or 6 to 10 p.m., and shifting usage to a different time of their choosing.

The Oregon Farm Bureau and Oregon Water Resources Congress submitted joint comments April 10 to the PUC opposing the change, saying members cannot afford higher energy costs on top of a global pandemic that has shrunk already thin operating margins.

“Oregon’s farmers and rancher will be lucky to weather this storm and cannot afford additional increased costs on top of a global pandemic,” the groups wrote.

Agriculture stands to shoulder the largest net increase across all customer classes. Pacific Power serves 587,400 residential customers in Oregon, 131,500 residential customers in Washington and 45,100 residential customers in California.

Mary Anne Cooper, vice president of public policy for the Farm Bureau, added that farmers in many cases cannot use the off-peak credit. Irrigation needs are driven by weather, crop and water availability, Cooper said, and cannot be planned around certain times of day.

“You need to be irrigating when crops require irrigation,” she said.

Cooper said the Farm Bureau is still deciding whether to formally intervene in the rate case.

“We’re concerned why agriculture has the highest net increase at a time when our folks are very vulnerable,” she said. “It’s really not something we can afford right now.”

If approved, it would be Pacific Power’s first rate increase in seven years. Over the last three years, Pacific Power has promised to invest $3.1 billion in new and existing wind farms as part of the Energy Vision 2020 initiative, which has nearly doubled the utility’s renewable energy capacity.

That includes retrofitting the existing wind fleet with larger turbine blades and new technology; adding 1,150 megawatts of new wind power by the end of 2020; and building a new 140-mile Gateway West transmission segment in Wyoming to enable additional wind generation.

Stefan Bird, Pacific Power president and CEO, said the top priority is to deliver “affordable, safe, reliable and increasingly clean electricity to our customers and communities so they can thrive.”

”These filings reflect significant progress to date, and we are committed to continue to innovate and provide our customers with industry-leading sustainable energy solutions,” Bird said in an earlier statement.



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