Norm Cimon has lived in La Grande for more than 30 years. He is a systems analyst who has worked for the EPA, the U.S. Forest Service and for private industry. He is also a member of the Oregon Rural Action energy team.

There are certainly storm clouds on the horizon for the Oregon Trail Electric Cooperative, but they’re coming from a very different direction. While we appreciate the utility’s open acknowledgment of the threats it perceives, much of the recent article in its Ruralite magazine was badly misdirected, and it doesn’t get to the heart of the issue.

Pushing water across the dams more often means more juvenile fish returning home in the future. That’s what all the numbers show. A carbon tax on the use of fossil fuels by power producers that returns that cash directly to consumers is one of the proposals before the legislature. That would cut down on carbon emissions and put money in the right pockets. That would be something we should all lobby for, not against.

As for the four Snake River dams, their problems are economic. Sediment is filling the reservoir behind Little Granite so quickly that only millions of federal tax dollars will save Lewiston, Idaho, from drowning. How long will the rest of the country be willing to pay for that? More important, in 10 to 15 years, what power those dams do produce will be unneeded and go unused. That starts to get to the eye of the storm that lies ahead.

The Bonneville Power Administration’s problems go well beyond fish. Summer power sales to California have collapsed. So much solar energy is available in that state they hardly know what to do with all of it. Since the cost of storing that power is coming down very rapidly, they have plans to do just that. So they’ll be looking for places to sell the excess.

It won’t be in Colorado. That state’s utility will eventually replace all its coal-fired power with wind and solar power — and storage — because those combinations are cheap and getting cheaper. The power companies in sunny Nevada and Arizona are planning for that very same future. They bought in after consumers rebelled when utilities tried to short-circuit solar power.

Meanwhile, Idaho Power has worked hard to slow down the rise of renewable energy in that state. They successfully lobbied the utility commission to change the rules, and a $200 million storage project proposed for Twin Falls was denied a long-term contract to sell power to the utility. Why? Because solar power was in the storage mix. That’s a holding action at best, one that makes it clear how un-needed the proposed Boardman to Hemingway power line is.

BPA is now forced to rethink its business. It expects to lose utility customers in the next 10 years to this changing landscape and that will mean higher prices for the customers who are left. BPA is working to reinvent itself, scrapping a plan to build one more power line through the Willamette Valley and planning for a future where customers roll their own power. OTEC needs to go down that same path.

It’s clear the 100-year-old business model that worked well is disappearing. Having the chief financial officer speaking for OTEC in the Ruralite trying to preserve that outmoded way of doing business is the wrong approach. This is a seismic shift that will require real creativity on the part of the board as well as a clear understanding of the challenges ahead. That’s something that goes well beyond bean-counting.

Oregon Rural Action has worked to find viable models that could help OTEC with that transition, models that would allow the company to partner with its customers. There would be savings for both those consumer/producers and for OTEC, and the utility would benefit from learning how to gather power from the ground up instead of the top down. While OTEC has yet to buy in, it’s only a matter of time before it will be scrambling to do so.

Given the speed of the renewable revolution, OTEC needs to move quickly. It can’t happen soon enough.

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