Locals react to Portland General Electric’s historic rate increase

Courtesy of PGE

On Jan. 1, residents in the Portland Metropolitan Area faced a historic increase of 18% in the electricity rate. An increase of this size has not occurred in twenty years, and for individuals with low or fixed incomes, the impact is significant.

Portland General Electric (PGE) holds a monopoly on the Portland Metropolitan Area, as well as many other parts of Oregon. This is not to be confused with Pacific Gas & Electric or PG&E. Nearly half of the state’s population lives within PGE’s service area. Most other parts of Oregon are covered by Pacific Power. 

The historic increase, introduced in February of last year, began to appear in residential electricity bills in early January and has been met with resistance and public outcry. Many residents are experiencing financial hardship amidst rising energy prices and expressed concern about future rate hikes. Several households have cut back their energy consumption yet are still facing noticeably high bills. Between the numerous power outages that resulted from January’s prolonged ice storm, the cost of heating during the winter months and the 18% price change, residential customers have struggled to make sense of alarmingly high bills.

On Feb. 29,  PGE proposed another rate increase of 7.4% for residential customers, which, if approved, would go into effect on Jan. 1, 2025. 

Chris Boone, a local carpenter who has lived in Portland on and off since 2012, took to public platforms in mid-January to express his discontent with the rate increase. Within only a few days of voicing his concerns, he found that many other Portlanders were facing much higher bills than anticipated and similarly struggling to afford the rate increase. Several individuals were paying hundreds of dollars more than they had in the past, and others were even forgoing food and transportation costs in an attempt to pay their newly increased energy bills.

“I did my research, I looked into it, and I found numbers,” said Boone. “Someone had to do something about it.”

Boone shared that he paid $75 more for an 80-square-foot apartment this January than he did for a 180+ square-foot apartment the January prior. After calculating the amount of energy used each year, Boone found that he was being charged approximately 30% more in 2024 than in 2023 per kilowatt-hour (kWh).

“What I noticed was that the people in the smallest homes were facing the largest increases, and the people in the larger homes were not,” said Boone. “A woman reached out to me, a single mom with three kids, and she doesn’t know what to do. She’s on a fixed income.”

He organized a group on Nextdoor, an app for neighbors to communicate, and started talking to fellow Portlanders to gather information. We The People, formerly PGE Protesters, serves as a platform for the Portland community to talk transparently about the rate hikes, the PGE corporation, its impact on residents and possible steps forward. Several members of the group reached out to Boone and relayed their stories. He learned that, like him, they were paying 25-35% more this January than the year before. 

Boone organized a public meeting on Nextdoor, in response to growing  concerns about PGE accountability and affordability. The post encouraged attendees to bring copies of their excessive bills in hopes of compiling information and presenting findings to the Oregon Public Utility Commission (OPUC). The event, called PGE/PUC Grievances Meet and Mingle, also proposed asking the legislature to investigate OPUC’s justification of granting PGE’s rate increase approval.

Several comments expressed concern over PGE’s profits from the rate increase. According to Simply Wall St., PGE CEO Maria Pope receives $6.29M annually, made up of 16.9% salary and 83.1% bonuses. 

“There were several hundred interested, but it ended up being eight of us who sat down and spoke about things,” Boone said. “The primary intent of the public meeting was to get public opinion on next steps … we all agreed we need to find a way to make a change.” 

A 2022 Report to the Oregon Legislature describes OPUC as an “agency led by a full-time, three-member Commission appointed by the Governor and confirmed by the Senate,” whose mission is to “ensure that Oregon utility customers have access to safe, reliable, and high-quality utility services at just and reasonable rates.” All PGE rate adjustments must be evaluated and approved by OPUC.

Currently, Commissioner Megan Decker, Commissioner Letha Tawney and Commissioner Les Perkins serve as co-chairs. Prior Commissioner Mark Thompson, whose term was set to end in November of 2023, resigned in September, and it was not until Feb. 15 that OPUC announced in a media release that Les Perkins would fill the opening. 

For four and a half months, there were only two commissioners handling proceedings. 

On Oct. 31, a media release announced the coming changes.

“The Oregon Public Utility Commission (PUC) recently approved an increase in rates for Portland General Electric (PGE) customers to be effective January 1, 2024,” the release said. 

The statement estimated residential customer rates to increase by approximately 17%.

Boone noted that both commissioners who signed the measure in October were Democrats. 

“The PUC is supposed to be the public voice,” said Boone. “We need everyone’s voices.”

Shortly after the public meeting, Boone started a petition on change.org. Since he started the petition on Feb. 22, it has gathered more than 3,000 signatures.

“We need 10,000 signatures to bring it to legislature and something like 50,000 to bring it to Congress,” said Boone. “The first thing to do right now is sign the petition so we can get a spot at the table.”

Boone urges residents to sign the petition and to submit public comments expressing frustration with the proposed rate increase. He identified Docket ue416, which resulted in this year’s 18% increase, and Docket ue435, which recently proposed a 7.4% increase for 2025, as public sources of information and avenues to call for change. Both can be found on oregon.gov. 

“The more we fill up their inbox, the more they’ll listen to us,” said Boone. 

Though Docket ue435 was only released on Feb. 29, over 180 comments have already been submitted, expressing a variety of opinions. Public commenters expressed concern about increased costs of living exacerbating the housing crisis and hampering post-pandemic recovery, as well as the role of individual versus corporate financial responsibility in the transition to clean energy. They also questioned whether the budget estimates for PGE’s proposed infrastructure repairs were accurate and whether the profits were being funneled to corporate leaders and shareholders.

“What’s most relevant right now is that we can’t afford this,” Boone said.

He also emphasized the importance of public discourse and initiative in ensuring fair and accountable energy practices. His leadership has prompted dozens of conversations, involved thousands of Portland residents in responding to the rate increase and been shared across several news outlets.

“This is all volunteer work,” said Boone. “At the end of the day, it only takes one person.”

Potential overbilling is another public concern. Many PGE customers have questioned their dashboards, which showed unusually high energy usage during days-long power outages two months ago. Others have seen their bills double or nearly triple. PGE Principal Communications Consultant Allison Dobscha explained the company’s reasoning behind the rate increases and potential discrepancies.

“The exact amount customer bills increased differs based on customer type (e.g., residential vs. small business vs. industrial), energy usage or enrollment in one of our energy saving programs,” she said via email. “We understand there can be confusion around bills given the price changes, new bill format and how charges were pro-rated given the price shift in the midst of a billing cycle for some customers.” 

She also noted the impact of individual home energy usage.

“Based on your home energy system, some people tend to see higher bills in the winter if they use electric heating, while other customers will see higher bills in the summer from using AC. Customer bills will always depend on their home energy usage,” she said. 

Another source of confusion and dissatisfaction among PGE customers has been the seemingly disproportionate impact of these increases on residential customers rather than commercial or industrial customers. A news release from Dec. 28, 2023 stated that residential customers could anticipate an 18% increase on Jan. 1, while commercial customers could expect a 14.4% increase and industrial customers could expect a 16% increase.

“Smaller customers usually pay higher electricity prices than industrial customers because it costs more to distribute electricity to them. Industrial customers use more electricity and can receive it at higher voltages, so supplying them is more efficient on a per kWh basis,” said Dobscha. “A higher proportion of the investments that have been made since our last General Rate Case support our residential customer’s needs, such as investments in transmission and distribution infrastructure, resiliency measures and grid modernization.”

Dobscha also described PGE’s goals regarding renewable energy, saying that the company  intends to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in accordance with the 2021 Oregon Climate Pledge.

“Oregon has some of the most ambitious clean energy targets in the nation. House Bill 2021 – legislation that PGE supported and helped develop – mandates that investor-owned utilities achieve an 80% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from power served to Oregon retail customers by 2030, a 90% reduction by 2035, and zero emissions by 2040. PGE was also the first North American utility company to join the Climate Pledge in 2021, agreeing to meet the goals of the UN Paris Agreement 10 years early and achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2040,” she said.

She noted that PGE has already made considerable strides towards this goal.

“We are well on this path, having already achieved a 25% reduction in emissions,” Dobscha said. “Our 2023 combined Clean Energy Plan & Integrated Resource Plan describes our strategy moving forward to decarbonize while maintaining reliability and affordability. PGE’s approach includes procuring significant quantities of renewable energy resources (like wind and solar) as well as capacity (resources that can store energy, like batteries), investing in transmission solutions that enable access to broader resource diversity, supporting the development of community-based renewable energy resources, and encouraging customer participation in programs that help shift or optimize energy delivery.”

PGE announced that in the upcoming year it plans to open a new wind farm in Montana. They also will be adding 475 megawatts of battery storage, which allows them to optimize power from renewable energy resources and partnering with Public Utility Districts in Washington to ensure reliable hydropower.

In a world where clean energy solutions are becoming increasingly prioritized, it is still difficult to know the extent to which clean energy necessitates rising energy prices for residents. As countries around the world navigate the shift towards renewable energy in different ways, businesses and residents experience the challenges of ensuring sustainability in different ways. PGE emphasized that the financial pressure of increased rates would be short-term.

“The clean energy transition will exert short-term pressure on rates, but as we move away from fossil fuels, which are subject to global and regional pricing and supply effects, we are moving toward resources that have more controllable prices,” Dobscha said. “Electrification can also save customers money as they transition from fossil fuels to lower-cost electricity to power their vehicles and heat their homes. PGE’s primary purpose – and our central challenge — is to decarbonize Oregon’s power grid while maintaining reliability and affordability. We work hard to keep the cost of electricity as low as possible while delivering increasingly clean energy to customers.”

Lewis & Clark Director of Sustainability, Amy Dvorak, spoke to the impact of this year’s rate increase on the school’s budget and sustainability efforts.

“We get rate increases for electricity, natural gas, water, garbage, housekeeping, dining, like everything that we’re paying for generally increases in rates every year,” Dvorak said. “So it’s not uncommon for us to be dealing with different rate increases … On the residential side, it might be more shocking, but for us, it’s not particularly (surprising).”

Dvorak emphasized the difference between the energy staff and the sustainability staff.

“Energy staff is outside of the sustainability budget,” she said. “Our utilities are all priced through facilities. So gas and water and all that stuff goes through them … But it’s all part of common services, which is coming from tuition.”

She connected the rising costs to her work within the Office of Sustainability, linking the topic of energy usage to a recently started program called the Energy Efficiency Revolving Fund.

“We’re trying to reduce our energy use below our baseline average over six years,” she said. “And so whatever we reduce and are able to save, we’re gonna keep those savings to invest into more energy efficiency.”

She noted that the Office of Sustainability is also involved with several other programs through the government, such as the Portland Clean Energy Community Benefits Fund and a program through the Energy Trust of Oregon, called Strategic Energy Management.

“The idea is you do this kind of holistic energy program that includes occupant engagement and behavior change, but also changing our equipment and tracking our energy use really closely so that we can control our energy use over time,” she said. “Which will help us with some of these changes in rates over time.”

Dvorak shared that the office receives funding through federal money, state money and local money to do energy efficiency work.

“”There’s all this money out there. There’s state legislation coming, and then also rate increases, so it all adds up to do the things now,” she said. “I do feel like there are resources out there for people to address this and good signals. Now’s the time.”

She emphasized that there are currently several jobs and resources available in this field to help fund clean energy. 

“It’s cheaper to do it now than it is to do it in five years,” said Dvorak.

The Climate Accord, while ambitious, is necessary for the preservation of a sustainable planet. While this is important, so are the financial needs of customers. Post-pandemic inflation has no doubt played a role in businesses raising prices, but not every resident is able to afford increasingly high electricity rates, especially when paying utility bills comes at the cost of food, rent and other monthly bills. Each home, business and institution adjusts to rate increases differently, but the hope within the field of sustainability seems to be that the short-term investments will pay off in the long run.

As utility and electric companies play an increasingly important role in the health of our environment, residents are calling for more transparency and regulation in hopes of ensuring that budgets for new infrastructure are being spent accordingly and corporations are being held accountable. 

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