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In Character: Tom Chester of the Oregon Renewable Energy Center

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Wednesday, August 01, 2007

The perpetual student

Tom Chester applies his own considerable energy to the task of developing alternative power.

Tom Chester, director of the Oregon Renewable Energy Center

Photo by Todd E. Swenson.
By Christina Williams

Tom Chester topic-hops even faster than he walks.

In the time it takes for the director of the Oregon Renewable Energy Center to walk from his office on the Klamath Falls campus of Oregon Institute of Technology to OREC’s lab in the building next door, he’s touched on the downsides of today’s entertainment-oriented society, a book about metaphors he read a few years ago, and the fact that life is ultimately a football game played with a no-cut team. In between, he weaves in color commentary about the engineering building and some of the myriad projects going on inside its labs.

When he gets to OREC’s corner he strides about in an oval, gesturing to the abandoned biodiesel still and left-behind fuel cell-powered go-kart and describes the showcase and conference room he’d like to install in the space. He wants it to be a place where people will come together and make the connections necessary to move the practical application of alternative energy forward — in homes, in businesses, in fields.

And that’s when he edges into yet another topic. He sees the promotion of renewable energy as something more than green and trendy. He stops his walking to emphasize the point. “It’s not a technical challenge, it’s a moral imperative,” he says. “We have to muddle our way out of this.”

Then he catches himself. “You’ll have to forgive me,” he says with a smile. “I tend to speak in homilies.”

Chester was hired in September as OREC’s executive director, a job he applied for in 2004 when it was awarded to Rajiv Arya, a solar-energy expert from the East Coast. In the intervening months, Chester systematically made a pest of himself, calling OIT provost David Woodall’s office on a regular basis to see how things were going at OREC.

“He indicated a continued interest in the position,” says Woodall with diplomatic understatement. When Arya left in 2006 to work for a California solar company, Woodall invited Chester to OIT for an interview. “He has a lot of experience with energy projects and he knows how universities work.”

Chester’s credentials include a majority of his 59 years spent in the energy industry. After he nailed an engineering degree at the University of Oklahoma (he financed his education by buying a bar in Norman, Okla., and running it with his buddies), Chester went to work in the oil fields. He later moved to San Francisco with his bride and built a name for himself as a hired gun for gnarly energy research.

Created by state legislation in 2001, OREC is charged with promoting energy conservation and renewable energy in Or-egon. But its identity is still unformed, something that doesn’t bother Chester one bit.

“Fostering renewable energy,” Chester repeats with relish. “That’s a nice hunting license.”

In pursuit of that goal, Chester keeps busy. He flies to Portland almost weekly — OIT offers its bachelor of science in renewable energy systems at its Portland campus — and then drives back down to Klamath Falls, usually stopping for a meeting in Salem or Eugene along the way, avoiding the speed trap in Oakridge, stopping for a soda in Chemult.

The way he figures it, he’ll leave the basic research to the big universities, the workforce training to the community colleges. OREC will stake its claim in the application of renewable energy and its link to economic development.

Betty Riley, executive director of the South Central Oregon Economic Development District, is happily taking advantage of Chester’s energy expertise. “We’ve been talking for a long time about renewable energy,” she says. “Tom sees an opportunity to bring many efforts together and highlight what is happening here.”

Thanks in part to leadership from OIT faculty, the Klamath Falls region has become a hotbed of activity around renewable energy as businesses tap into the natural resources such as geothermal heat, hundreds of days of sunshine for solar power and local crops for biodiesel. The possibilities thrill Chester.

“He has a lot of energy,” says Riley. “He’s not one of those people with a lot of experience who’s been there, done that. He has a focus on the future.”

Chester’s wife is the eye in his storm. A patient presence who doesn’t let him get away with grandstanding or guff, Thea Chester is a worthy match to her husband’s rangy intelligence. Her game is law. She works part-time for two different firms and keeps track of the couple’s two 20-something daughters.

Walking around the campus on a summer evening, Thea points out her husband’s tunnel vision. “You walk by these every day,” she accuses with a smile. There are astonishing, fragrant roses blooming outside the door of his office that Chester claims he’s never seen before. This kind of teasing goes on between them a lot. They have lively debates over memories of raising two girls in San Francisco before setting out for small-town life.

Tom, Thea, two dogs and a cat left San Francisco in 2005 in a ’92 Winnebago and scoured the West looking for a livable town to call home. They thought they found the spot in Las Vegas, N.M., but they got cold feet: There are small towns and then there are insular, very small towns. They set up temporary digs in Tucson (“We called it our margarita summer”), where a daughter was in college, and happily took the call from OIT when the OREC’s director’s job became available again last year.

Chester is comfortable in Klamath Falls. He sometimes pines for the big city, but is entrenching himself in the south central Oregon life. He’s a regular at all the downtown meeting spots and raves about the access to nature the city’s location provides.  

The intellectual challenge of establishing the center’s identity appeals to Chester, as does OIT itself with its practical curriculum and scrappy second-tier status. Walking around the OREC lab, Chester is pleased to show off the gutted VW Jettas that were converted to electric cars. “The students actually learn things here,” Chester says with obvious pleasure.

The best part for this curious soul? He’s learning things, too.


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