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Business is Good tour: The green dream

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Thursday, November 01, 2007


Oregon gets serious about sustainable business

By Christina Williams


OK, so maybe it’s not the right marketing slogan for a sustainable success story.

But across a state retooling itself for the next millennium, the words green, renewable, sustainable, responsible and natural are becoming more than just feel-good adjectives. They’re becoming a brand. A brand that many business leaders and politicians hope to hitch Oregon’s economy to in order to compete on a global scale.

But what exactly are we signing up for? Because what sustainability means in Lakeview or Sherman County is a whole lot different than what it means in cities such as Corvallis and Portland.

GreenDream.jpgIn the neighborhoods of Oregon’s largest cities, recycling is ingrained, composting is common and even urban chickens are going mainstream. Portland’s Office of Sustainable Development has been around for seven years but similar offices are springing up in other Oregon cities vying for green business. And up and down the I-5 corridor and east to Bend, green building is the default choice for new developments.

While the cities try to reach beyond their reputations as recycling nirvanas, Oregon’s rural areas are developing a sustainability niche by reaching into their backyards and exploiting their natural assets. In south central Oregon the communities of Lakeview and Klamath Falls are getting attention for their proximity to geothermal heat and plethora of high-desert, solar-friendly days, making the region an attractive choice for industrial companies looking to tap into alternative energy sources. In the wind-swept fields of Eastern Oregon, ranches are sprouting hundreds of megawatt-churning turbines. The coastline is experimenting with wave-energy generation. And the semi-rural counties that surround Portland are embracing their roles as the city’s  foodshed by getting serious about preserving their agricultural lands and identities.

“All communities need to be looking at what their resources are and where the world is headed,” says Darcy Hitchcock, president of Axis Performance Advisers, a sustainability consulting practice based in Portland. “They should all be looking at the next industry, not the last industry.”  

For example, Silicon Forest is working hard to lure solar industry manufacturers such as Solar World, which in March purchased a dormant silicon plant and announced plans to hire as many as 1,000 workers. Solacix announced a similar operation in June.

WHILE IT SOUNDS LIKE A PUNCHLINE of a bad joke to think of rainy Portland as a center for solar energy, Ron Penrick, a Portland-based analyst and author of The Clean Tech Revolution, says there’s a potential for the world to do just that.
DallesWindFarm.jpg “A region has to initially assess what its assets are,” says Penrick. “Then it has to look at how it can further its business development activities.”

We may look back on 2007 as the year Oregon got serious about sustainable business. Two years after Harvard international competitiveness guru Michael Porter spoke to the Oregon Business Plan Leadership Summit and told the state to find a niche or forget it, a year after the same group put a tentative stake in the ground on sustainability (and made it again the hot topic for the 2008 summit next month), the business community is finally showing off its green side.

Oregon lawmakers passed a bumper crop of green-friendly laws this year (after getting exactly nowhere with them in the previous session) prompting the Oregon League of Conservation Voters to declare it the greenest Legislature in 30 years.

Penrick, who nods to the Legislature’s actions when calling Oregon an attractive spot for renewable industries, has a theory that what he calls the clean-tech economic revolution will happen in more than one place. While the high-tech boom was centered in Silicon Valley, clean tech will have multiple epicenters. He has Portland on a list of 10 clean-tech cities to watch but says Stumptown will have to keep moving ahead in terms of innovative policies and business innovation.

GreenDream1.jpgAnd marketing. This month, the breathy, ultra-hip world of the PDX Lounge opens its doors in Chicago in conjunction with the annual Greenbuild conference. It’s the second time Portland has showcased itself at the tradeshow in a clubby after-hours atmosphere. Last year 32 PDX Lounge partners made it happen and trotted out all things green and Portland — from the furnishings to the liquor. This year more than 50 businesses are in on the act and the lounge bills itself as a living showcase of a sustainable economy.

While some might ask what a temporary bar at a tradeshow has to do with a sustainable economy, furthering the city’s reputation as a place where green equates to hip is a valuable marketing move.

Eugene gets that making that green name for itself is important. In fact, city officials are quick to point out that the Southern Willamette Valley city bested Portland in a 2006 National
Geographic ranking of green cities. (The top three: Eugene, Austin, Texas, and Portland.)

“We want to be the mid-sized city that kicks butt when it comes to sustainability,” says Eugene mayor Kitty Piercy.

In 2005, the city assembled a task force, which last year presented a report titled Eugene’s Sustainable Business Initiative, calling for an office of sustainability similar to Portland’s and ambitious goals for carbon neutrality.

In Corvallis, city officials have been working on sustainability with measures such as buying hybrids for official city use and employing bio-swales to capture rainwater runoff since 2003. Linda Lovett, the city’s sustainability supervisor, has been in the job for a year and is focused on making city operations more sustainable. Meanwhile, a group of 60 business leaders and organizations came together in January to form the Corvallis Sustainability Coalition with goals to involve the community, including its businesses, in establishing an eco-friendly municipality.

PortlandTram.jpg OTHER PARTS OF THE STATE have marched into the sustainable economy without help from citizen coalitions.

When cash-strapped local governments and farmers were offered a new income stream, embracing renewable energy became a no-brainer. The Klondike Phase Two wind farm in Sherman County and the Leaning Juniper wind farm in Gilliam County generate as much as $1 million annually in county taxes and pay between $370,000 and $585,000 to local landowners each year, according to Portland-based Renewable Northwest Project, a clean energy nonprofit.

RNP points out that the economic benefits to the state go beyond the county lines. Thanks to the windy fields in the east, the Port of Vancouver, Wash., has seen an increase in shipments of wind turbines coming through its terminals. Vestas, a large wind turbine manufacturer, established its North American headquarters five years ago in Portland.

In Lakeview and Klamath Falls, buildings — and even sidewalks — have long been heated with geothermal energy, but a new focus on renewable energy, and emerging technology that can convert geothermal heat into electricity, have pushed the region into the spotlight.

A recent report by Icelandic energy research firm Glitnir named Oregon among five Western states with a hefty potential for geothermal energy and forecasted that geothermal could add between 10% and 15% to the state’s total electricity generation in a matter of years. Government and business leaders are waking up to the potential of renewable energy.

Perhaps the best approach to a sustainable economic plan is one that marries a region’s assets to a thoughtful plan for economic competitiveness. Last year the Clackamas County Board of Commissioners established a Green Ribbon Committee, a group of business and government leaders charged with developing a sustainability-based economic plan.

The committee looked first at its county’s natural assets. Clackamas County has more organic farms than any other in the state. Its forestry and wood products industries have a $169 million annual payroll.  The committee saw all this and decided the county’s sustainable stake in the ground would be preserving and supporting those industries.

The county established a sustainability office in July and is implementing a plan for nurturing its sustainable industry clusters — basically maintaining its role as the metropolitan region’s agricultural food shed, its role as a value-added wood products center and renewable energy industries including biofuels and wood-waste biomass energy generation. The plan also calls for a Green Economy Center, a clearinghouse for expert advice and technical support for the target clusters.

One could argue that each of these community’s efforts smacks of green washing. Let’s face it, many Oregonians would be hard-pressed to define sustainability and can be distrustful of environmentalists. But savvy economic developers can be forgiven for trying to align themselves with the increasingly cash-driven trend toward green business.

Because in the end, sustainability is about a lot more than recycled milk cartons, solar panels or urban chickens. It’s about having something to pass on to the next generation. A pretty state with nowhere to work wouldn’t do anyone much good.

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