Newsletter: Want to pass a 100% clean grid law? Don’t pick too many fights

Oregon built broad support for its clean grid law. Can other places learn from the example?

Oregon bill signing
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After a couple of years of failed economywide carbon-reduction bills, Oregon yesterday enacted a law to mandate 100 percent carbon-free electricity by 2040

HB 2021 is a pivotal step for broader decarbonization efforts because a clean grid supports electrifying carbon-intensive activities like driving and heating buildings. 

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As President Biden and his allies push to get a federal 100 percent clean electricity standard through Congress, it’s worth taking a look at the strategies that have succeeded in building support at the state level.

I happened to be in Portland a few weeks after the legislature passed the bill. I grabbed a zero-carbon bicycle (when in Portland) and pedaled over to meet Rep. Khanh Pham, an activist turned legislator who helped shepherd the 100 percent clean grid law through the statehouse. 

Check out the full Q&A for the complete experience. But read on here for three highlights from our discussion of tactics for effective clean energy legislation.

Organize early and often

Having communities of color and environmental justice groups lead the push for clean energy ensured a shared vision that centers racial justice and workers’ rights within climate justice,” Pham said. Those groups were joined by mainstream environmentalists, organized labor and utilities in supporting the bill.

But the organizing around this vision predated the bill itself. It goes back at least to a 2018 ballot initiative in Portland that raised funds for clean energy investments.

It started with the Portland Clean Energy Fund. I honestly think we wouldn’t have been able to get to this point if we hadn’t done the initial relationship-building with PCEF. We hope that working on these win-win campaigns [will] help us toward eventually doing things that might be tougher.

Pham also helped launch the Oregon Just Transition Alliance, which conducted a statewide listening tour in 2020 to ask frontline communities what kind of Green New Deal would make sense for them. Those conversations led to the framework for a 100% clean electricity law and allowed voters to engage with the concept well before it appeared in the legislature.

Pick your opposition wisely

Decarbonization means change. A policy capping emissions from the entire economy changes every sector and may generate pushback from the whole host of industries affected. That often leads to carve-outs and exemptions that water down the impact of the proposal.

This time, climate justice organizers picked their battles: They would focus squarely on the electric grid. There’s a clear pathway for cleaning up that sector. And the limited scope made it possible to sit down with the major utilities and assuage their concerns, Pham noted:

It was really about taking a sector-by-sector approach and being targeted. When your opposition is in every sector, it’s a lot harder.

The utilities ended up being in support of this. Crafting something that’s really targeted to that particular sector allowed them to be at the table and feel heard. We had things to reassure them that their voices were reflected in the policy.

Merge disaster planning with grid planning

Prior to winning office, Pham worked on a statewide listening tour to figure out what Oregonians wanted from a Green New Deal. Then a string of natural disasters hit, putting resilience top of mind.

When it came time to craft the legislation, the sponsors didn’t end up calling it a Green New Deal. Instead, Pham said:

We emphasized jobs, investments and disaster resilience because I think that’s something that’s deeply felt in Oregon right now. […]

It didn’t seem as partisan by not saying climate change” as much, but rather saying disaster resilience” and jobs,” and really focusing on this being a uniquely Oregon way of tackling the issue.

Everyone in Oregon deeply feels the worsening natural disasters. You cannot live in any place that hasn’t been touched by disaster in some form. I think that’s something that everyone’s concerned about and ready to do something about.

That message recalls yesterday’s newsletter about reframing grid upgrades as disaster resilience investments. Plenty of other parts of the country could be amenable to that sort of argument.

(Lead photo: Oregon Gov. Kate Brown signed the 100% clean electricity law Tuesday at an electric truck charging depot. Photo courtesy of Gov. Brown’s office.)

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Julian Spector is an editor at Canary Media and reports on the rise of clean energy. He worked at Greentech Media for nearly five years, and before that he reported for CityLab at The Atlantic.