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New Year marks leadership change for Portland General Electric

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New Year marks leadership change for Portland General Electric

On Dec. 31, when Portland General Electric Co. CEO Jim Piro steps away from a decadeslong career, he will leave behind a utility and industry that looks a bit different than when he began.

During his 43 years in the energy industry, Piro has seen a shift to less carbon-intensive generation, a growing interest by customers in greener sources of energy, and the emergence of technologies like batteries, solar panels and electric vehicles.

"We've seen a change in prices in these technologies, which now make them affordable and start being a very key part of our strategy to decarbonize our environment," he said.

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Portland General Electric CEO Jim Piro

Source: PGE

When Piro began his run as CEO in 2009, Portland, Ore.-headquartered PGE was in a state of transition. By that time, Oregon had already enacted a 25%-by-2025 renewable portfolio standard, and PGE started down a path to add new renewable resources to meet customer wishes for cleaner energy and for a smaller carbon footprint.

The company later worked out what Piro sees as a "landmark deal" to cease operations at the coal-fired Boardman power plant in 2020. "I think we were way ahead of the industry in terms of seeing that we needed to transition our fleet, make it less carbon-intensive," he said.

Piro also took on a project to rebuild PGE's technology systems, something he saw as a way to improve service, reliability and cut costs for customers. That effort should wrap up next year when a new customer information system is brought onto service in April 2018.

During Piro's tenure, PGE also put in smart meters across its service territory, joined the western Energy Imbalance Market and has seen Oregon bump up its renewables requirement and call on utilities to move away from coal-fired generation.

"We are at the precipice of some really exciting things as we go forward," he said, adding that he is excited for incoming CEO Maria Pope as she looks at the challenges ahead.

Pope, who was PGE's senior vice president of power supply, operations and resource strategy, is already serving as PGE's president. She assumed that role on Oct. 1 and come Jan. 1, 2018, will add CEO to her title and join the board of directors.

Pope said it has been fun working with Piro on that aspect of the business. "He knows everyone in the state, particularly among civic leaders and the business community," she said.

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Portland General Electric President and incoming CEO Maria Pope

Source: PGE

Pope is taking over during at a time that PGE continues its transition toward a greener fleet and smarter grid. PGE's grid of the future is going to be smarter, more complex, interconnected and automated. It will also be larger due to growth on the distributed side and more resilient, she said.

"It will really be an exciting set of opportunities for the company, for all of our customers as we integrate a whole series of new technologies that are currently in the market and being envisioned as we speak," she said.

One of those opportunities involves electric vehicles. Oregon is now home to roughly 16,000 registered electric vehicles. Gov. Kate Brown in November issued an executive order setting a goal for the state to have 50,000 electric vehicles registered and operating by 2020.

That is an effort PGE supports and is looking forward to assisting where possible, Pope said.

PGE already has five charging stations near its headquarters in downtown Portland, a location known as "Electric Avenue," and last December filed a proposal with the state Public Utility Commission to expand its charging infrastructure network. The utility spent much of the year working stakeholders on that plan.

Those talks resulted in a settlement now before the commission that would allow for a pilot with Portland transit agency TriMet to test out bus charging stations and for PGE to add six charging sites to the existing "Electric Avenue" network.

Piro, who co-chaired an Edison Electric Institute task force on electric transportation, said many PGE customers love electric vehicles. While most charging happens at home, more infrastructure is needed to ease "range anxiety," or the fear that a vehicle will not have enough juice to get to its destination.

"There's others, obviously, who want to provide that infrastructure, but I think there's room for both of us to play in this space," Piro said. "The ultimate goal here is to ensure customers have access to charging stations at cost-effective prices."

In the years ahead, PGE will cut coal and add more renewables to its generation mix. Legislation passed in 2016 boosts the RPS to 50% by 2040 and calls for PGE and PacifiCorp, known in Oregon as Pacific Power, to be coal-free by 2030. That requirement does have an exception for PGE's share of the Colstrip power plant in Montana. Electricity from the plant is to be out of the Oregon mix in 2035.

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The two older units of the 2,094-MW plant are to close by July 2022, and observers are keeping an eye on what will happen to the remaining two units. Pope could not speak for other Colstrip owners about the plant's future, but said PGE is depreciating its investment in units 3 and 4 through 2030 and has the ability to have that energy production in customers' prices through 2035.

"It gives us time to be able to introduce new renewables into the system, begin to continue to transform our energy supply," she said.

PGE's power generation system is now 40% carbon-free, Pope said, with 15% coming from renewables and 25% from hydro resources. That figure will climb to 70% by 2040, she said.

PGE serves approximately 872,000 customers and those customers like to support renewable energy. More than 150,000 PGE customers choose to pay extra on their bills for renewable energy, a figure that has consistently put the utility at the top of the U.S. National Energy Renewable Laboratory's list of the top 10 utility green pricing programs. In 2016, PGE had the most participants, highest participation rate and most sales of green energy through its voluntary program, NREL said.

"That's a testament to the kind of customers we have and their interest in the environment," Piro said.

Pope said in many ways customers are not looking for anything new. They are focused on carbon-free electricity, affordability, safety and reliability and security. That is something PGE has and will continue to provide, she said.

While technologies will continue to develop to help PGE focus on green energy and a smart grid for customers, they do take time to implement, Pope said.

"If we're truly going to have a smarter grid, we need to maintain what we have, keep it up and continue to invest and learn," she said.