Portland General Electric’s proposal to phase out Oregon’s sole coal-burning power plant 20 years ahead of schedule means the state will soon be losing its largest source of pollution from greenhouse gases, sulfur dioxide and nitrous oxide. It also means we will lose a reliable workhorse that has helped keep electricity rates relatively low in Oregon. Replacing the Boardman coal plant will not be easy.
The seemingly obvious solution for making up for that lost power would be to build a new power plant fueled by natural gas. Gas releases about half as much carbon dioxide as coal, and it is extremely reliable and easy to fire up on demand, to back up renewable resources when the wind is not blowing and the sun is not shining.
But I don’t like the idea of replacing one imported fossil fuel with another. I don’t trust natural gas prices. They are low because of the recession but they have a long record of volatility. Cranking up another cookie cutter gas plant may be tempting, but it is far from innovative. And it would cut jobs rather than creating them, because coal plants provide more jobs than gas plants.
Green continues to be the hot color as we enter another decade, and sustainability efforts are still developing everywhere, particularly in Portland. Electric cars are charging into the auto sector, and more local businesses are offering sustainable products to draw in environmentally conscious consumers. But as the market becomes saturated with all kinds of green services, where else can entrepreneurs look for opportunities? The home or workplace might be a good place to start.
Industry experts and budding entrepreneurs alike met at the swanky Perkins Coie office in Portland’s Pearl District this week for a roundtable discussion on smart-meter trends, and the increasing deployment of the meters in homes and businesses to support a smart-grid system. The discussion was hosted by the Oregon branch of The Indus Entrepreneurs (TiE), a nonprofit entrepreneurship group with 53 chapters worldwide. While the attendees spent a good part of the discussion engaging in tangential, friendly debates, the topic focused on some key questions: What opportunities are available for entrepreneurs? And what challenges do they face trying to break into the market?
Supporting a smart-grid network was among the priorities for the Obama administration last year, which announced a $3.4 billion investment for the grid’s development, $30 million of which went to Oregon. The smart meters making up the grid are aimed at providing effective, two-way communication between the consumer and the utility for maximum energy efficiency, while also spurring the economy as a bonus. And with 20% compounded annual growth, technology such as smart meters would not only be good for energy consumption, but also for customers by allowing more accurate bills, among other things. But for entrepreneurs, one of the biggest obstacles is the lack of access to meter data due to privacy concerns – a big conversation starter at this discussion given the information’s significance in developing business ideas around the meters themselves.
You can’t accuse John Kitzhaber of thinking small. After seven years of tilting at the windmills of our hopelessly inefficient national health care system, he is running for governor on a platform of transformational change. The theme of systemic transformation has permeated his public speeches since his last stint as governor, and it is also the central idea behind his economic strategy for Oregon, which he presented to the public yesterday at the Portland offices of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.
If ever there was a time for transformational change in Oregon, it is now. Joblessness is rampant, wages are stagnant, and scarcity has given birth to increasingly ugly partisan battles. Big change is in order, but what exactly to change, and how?
Kitzhaber’s economic strategy, developed in collaboration with Robert Young, an assistant professor of planning, public policy and management at the University of Oregon, contains strong ideas for building on Oregon’s strengths. It calls for aggressive investments in areas where Oregon has a distinct edge already, such as energy efficiency and woody biomass. A statewide campaign to retrofit all public buildings to make them more efficient would create jobs immediately and sharpen the state’s green edge. An effort to thin forests responsibly to reduce fire risks while feeding the state’s growing biomass industry could bring new hope to Oregon’s struggling timber towns.
Two pieces of higher education news swam across the flotsam and jetsam of my desk in the past few days. Higher ed news always catches my attention because of its fundamental connection to business.
The Joint Boards of Education, which consists of the Boards of Education and Higher Education, and the Oregon Business Council met as the “Tri-Board” last week to discuss how K-12 and higher education can partner with the business community and, according to OUS Chancellor George Pernsteiner, “to determine what students should be learning, and how to evaluate that learning, not just course by course, but as the cumulative result of a college experience.”
The result was that the Tri-board approved standardized credits for the International Baccalaureate classes passed by high school students; approved statewide standards for the General Education course to make it easier to transfer; and approved clarification of the coursework included in the Associate of Arts Oregon Transfer degree.
A new year means a fresh start, and the business community could certainly use one after the bleakness that was 2009. Any signs of inspiration or progress are welcome, and one needs to look no further than the startup community to find examples. And in Portland, the web/software scene has already started cooking up ideas, both big and small.
This week I stopped by the home base of the Portland Incubator Experiment, a glossy workspace that fits right in with the glitzy Pearl District surrounding it. PIE was launched just last year as a way to bring the web community together and give them a space – provided by Wieden + Kennedy – to collaborate and share resources. PIE held its Demolicious! event last night, a quarterly showcase for Portland’s web innovators to share their latest ideas.
Among them was Jason Glaspey, founder of membership diet website Paleo Plan. As an active participant in CrossFit exercise programs, Glaspey knew there were many in the community who were interested in the Paleo diet, but there wasn’t a good deal of user-friendly information about the diet available. Glaspey began putting together a website using WordPress, a Suma plugin, WooThemes, Adwords, Campaign Monitor and a handful of recipes that fit the Paleo standards; $2,500 in out-of-pocket expenses and a few weeks later, Paleo Plan was launched at the end of last year. With downloadable meal plans and shopping lists available in addition to the constantly updated recipe roster, Glaspey says the site is already close to turning a profit thanks to the new partnerships – and free promotion – he developed with some CrossFit gyms shortly after launching.
UPDATE (April 7) : Figures released today by the Oregon Brewers Guild show that 2009 was the best year ever for craft brewers. For the first time, total production topped a million barrels of beer, a 15% increase over 2008.
It’s always good to start the New Year on a positive note, so let’s dispose of the leftover faux champagne and talk Oregon beer. The Eugene Register Guard reported yesterday that Ninkasi Brewing has become the first Oregon brewer to earn regional brewery status in a decade. Ninkasi, which added 10 jobs in 2009, is on track to crank out 30,000 barrels of beer this year, about 10 times the amount it brewed when it first launched just three years ago. By crossing the threshold from brewpub to regional brewer, this growing business joins Oregon icons such as Rogue Ales, Full Sail Brewing and Deschutes Brewery in an industry as resilient as it is quirky.
Oregon continues to buck the national trend by opening new breweries from the Caldera Brewpub in Ashland to Mt. Emily Alehouse in La Grande and Mutiny Brewing in Joseph. The market for craft beer in Oregon is four times as strong as the national average, boosting an industry with more than 5,000 jobs. Portland leads the nation in urban brewpubs, with more than 40 and counting. Most other states have experienced a net loss of brewpubs during the recession, but Oregon has gained several dozen including, I am thrilled to report, two soon to open within walking distance of my home.
Locally crafted beer is just the latest in an amazing string of improvements that have transformed NE 28th into one of Portland’s most vibrant neighborhoods. This once-dumpy business district is now overflowing with great restaurants, lively cafes, bike racks and unusual shops. If you want to feel better about Oregon’s economic prospects, take a stroll along 28th from Glisan to Stark some evening when it isn’t raining and stop into a few places at random. The place is hopping, and it will only get better with the addition of Migration Brewing and Coalition Brewing.
Doussard Family Industries held a day-long retreat over the holidays and decided that the company needed to jump on the social media bandwagon in a big way to better facilitate communication externally and internally. DFI has a long history of poor communication practices, and frankly I have to blame it entirely on the operations manager.
Ops is a loyal employee, and sometimes works hard. OK, not hard, but his heart is in the right place. He never forgets to bring beer to the company picnic. But he is just not cutting edge with anything but his hedge clippers.
As CEO, CFO and chief marketer, I had to convince Ops that we needed to get active on Twitter. Despite 31 years of trying to modernize him (hello, 1970s haircut!) Ops is still a Victorian when it comes to new technology, especially ones that require him to interface with humans. So we spent this past weekend in beta so Ops could be trained before we went public. The rule was that we could only communicate via Twitter. No email, no face-to-face, no phone calls.
One of the advantages of working for a monthly publication is the week-long holiday we all take to recharge for the new year, a little time to step back and let others feed the media beast. It's a nice perk any year, but after 2009 a few days of rest and reflection are more vital than ever. I can't say I enjoyed 2009, but I did survive it. You know things are iffy when you feel fortunate just to have a job that isn't getting chopped and a home that isn't getting sold out from under you through foreclosure. I believe it was Einstein who said that it's all relative.
For better or worse, I'm entering my 22nd year of journalism in 2010. I've covered deadly dull town board meetings in Guilderland, NY, surreal street demonstrations in Seattle and commercial fishing on Lake Malawi. As careers go it's been borderline when measured by pay. Another way to look at it is that I've gotten front-row access to great events and amazing people, and I've gotten paid to hunt things down and write about my findings. There are worse ways to go through life than following your instincts from story to story.
If you had told me 25 years ago I would end up working as managing editor for a business publication, I would have suggested you put down the crack pipe and guess again. But here I am. I had not covered business fulltime before taking this job almost exactly two years ago, and in my fervor to embrace my new beat I started reading The Wall Street Journal every day and talking to as many executives and analysts as possible. That's when I started getting this strong sense of impending doom. One of my first major stories for the magazine was The Party's Over, a dark look at group denial, the housing market and the Oregon economy.
I did not lose 10 pounds, learn French or save more for retirement. I did not call my mother more often, did not curb my iPhone app addiction and certainly came nowhere near being more forgiving and accepting of the weaknesses and irritating habits of others. And that promise to spend less time on Gawker? Crikey. I’m up to three hours a day now that Tiger News has gone 24-7.
The New Year’s resolutions I made 12 months ago are in a pathetic dead heap at my feet as 2010 rounds the bend. But hope springs eternal and I’m ready to make a new batch. Over at 43things.com, 84,659 people have made 172,613 resolutions. The top five: lose weight, be happy, fall in love, get a job, travel. Fall in love is a resolution? The serendipity of romance clearly is a last-century deal.
Anyway, goody for those 84,659 people, but I need to lower the bar. So I resolve to never step on a weight scale again, never say Avatar changed my life, and never utter the phrase “lipstick on a pig.”