Ever wonder where the electricity comes from that powers the popcorn maker on the kitchen counter?

It turns out, according to the Oregon Department of Energy, that if you live in this state you get power from five primary sources.

At 38.7%, hydroelectric is the largest.  Next is coal (35.5%,) then natural gas (16.2%,) wind at 4.3% and nuclear power at 3.7%.

(The final 1 ½ % is generated from a combination of smaller sources like geothermal, petroleum and landfill gas.)

Non-renewable?  Renewable?

The figures mean that more than 55% of our electricity is produced by non-renewable (coal, natural gas, nuclear) sources.  But note that, at about 44% renewable (wind, solar, geothermal, hydroelectric,) Oregon compares favorably to the United States as a whole, whose energy creation averages only about 12% renewable.  We aren’t the best by any means; the US Department of Energy says we rank #7 in renewable production.

Then there are two main kinds of utilities

The energy from various sources is funneled to the consumer through power companies, or utilities.  These are the people you write the bill to.  The largest are investor-owned corporations, who supply nearly 70% of the state’s demand for electricity.  The largest is PGE, which delivers 38.7% of Oregon’s electricity from Portland down through below Salem, and points east and west.  Pacific Power is the second, operating in the lower third of the state and covering towns like Medford and Ashland, transporting 27.8%.

There is another sort of utility, however, in Oregon.   While PGE and Pacific Power are owned by stockholders, a whopping 29.5% of Oregon’s electricity is delivered by 18 Consumer Owned Utilities, (COUs,) which are generally owned by local customers and which generally operate in more remote areas of the state.

“Oregon’s electric cooperatives were first organized in the 1930’s,” says Salem Electric’s Assistant General Manager, Terry Kelly, “to bring power to unserved rural areas.”

Salem has the distinction of having some of its neighborhoods served by stockholder- owned PGE (primarily east of the river) and other areas (mainly in West Salem) served by a COU, Salem Electric.

COUs, including Municipal utilities, may not carry the lion’s share of electricity, but, because they are mainly rural and stretch across farmland and mountain terrain, serve about 80% of the land mass of Oregon.

Stockholder-owned vs. user-owner

“As a cooperative,” Kelly says, “Salem Electric is owned by those it serves. In other words, our customers are our members or owners. By comparison PGE is owned by stockholders, who may or may not be customers.”  He adds that the utility’s board members are elected from, and by, the membership.

Because of federal law, most low-cost renewable hydropower from the Bonneville Power Administration goes to COUs like Salem Electric, which helps keep their rates low.  (Though in some rural areas that have very low-density residential customers, COUs impose higher rates.)  It happens that Salem Electric gets all of its energy Bonneville, 86% of which is renewable.

Although currently PGE gets power from only 5% renewables, Philip Carver, Ph.D., Senior Policy Analyst for the Oregon Department of Energy, says that, “large Oregon utilities are required by ORS 469A to get 15% of their power from new renewable sources by 2015, and 25% by 2025.”  He says large companies like PGE are on track to meet this goal.

The two approaches allocate profit differently.  For the co-op Salem Electric, Kelly says, “Our margin is invested back into the co-op to pay for capital costs.”  Although the enterprise has a policy of returning profits on a 20-year cycle, Kelly says the group is currently paying 1998 capital credits – far ahead of schedule.  “Nearly $19.8 million,” Kelly says, “has been paid to date.”

Thermal vs non-thermal

Thermal power comes from creating steam by burning things to heat water.  The steam turns turbines from which energy is collected.  Examples of thermal power include coal, nuclear, waste incineration and natural gas.

In terms of climate change, Carver, who is a Greenhouse Gas Inventory analyst, says that “Oregon law… favors energy efficiency over thermal generation.”  Carver cites tax credits, low-cost state loans and other incentives for renewable resources and energy efficiency and says, “Oregon is a national leader [in] both.“

Governor Kitzhaber released a 10-Year Energy Plan in December 2012.  Its most prominent goal is ambitious and daring; that the state meet 100% of new load growth through efficiency and conservation by 2022.


Statistics and additional info:  Energy.gov, US Department of Energy, Oregon.gov/energy, OPUCStat. Book, oreca.org.