By Ilie Mitaru
University of Portland’s Buckley Center was filled with eager students, professionals and community members last weekend for a conference titled “Transforming Our Energy Futures.” The event painted a rosy picture of progress for alternative energy initiatives across the region - in spite of both federal and state inability to pass key energy legislation.
Congressman Earl Blumenauer gave the opening remarks: “They’re going to heal the planet," said the congressman of state and private initiatives to cut greenhouse gases in the face of federal - and state - inaction. “They’re not waiting for the federal government.”
The following speakers echoed this optimism, each outlining recent progress in their respective fields: James Maldonado on the wind industry, Thor Hinkley on PGE’s renewable power program and John Audley on the broad effort to boost renewables throughout the region.
James Maldonado, operations chief of staff for Vestas Wind Systems, discussed the growth and hurdles of the wind industry.
Maldonado stressed the technical and logistical hurdles often overlooked when considering alternative energies such as wind. These include financing, servicing and transportation. But ultimately, says Maldonado, all of these hurdles are opportunities: “All of this is jobs. We hire most of our service folks from the local community.”
Maldonado also talked about the benefit to rural landowners, who can make between three and five thousand dollars a year by leasing their land to wind turbines. This is especially significant in Oregon, he says, where many farmers and rural dwellers could use the extra revenue.
Commenting on Vestas’ performance over the last few years, Maldonado says the company was hit hard by the recession and found it hard to secure financing for their multimillion-dollar wind projects. The company is growing healthy now, Maldonado says. He expects this coming summer—most turbine installations occur in the summer—to be the “busiest ever in this history of this company.”
Thor Hinkley is manager of PGE’s Renewable Power Program, which offers both homeowners and businesses the option to sign up for energy from renewable sources. To date, the ten-year-old program serves about 10 percent of PGE’s customers, both business and residential, or 78,000 clients.
“I’m a marketing guy,” says Hinkley, highlighting the biggest task of the job: convincing businesses and residential clients that making the switch is worth the increased price.
Selling the idea of renewables to businesses is more difficult than to residential clients, says Hinkley. “Residential customers make a choice for renewable energy because it fits their values. On the business side of things, it’s a little more complicated.” Hinkley explains he has to convince businesses that the positive PR from switching to renewables is worth the increased cost.
But, he says, listing all the companies that have signed up as of late, we’re seeing more interest in this kind of program from businesses, “because I think they see it’s part of the business community ethic now.”
John Audley, deputy director for Renewable Northwest Project (RNP), spoke of the organization’s efforts in coordinating and advocating for renewables across the Pacific Northwest.
Showing a chart demonstrating RNP’s proposal for meeting future energy needs across the region, Audley stressed that the vast majority of savings would come from “efficiencies.”
Either you meet an existing demand by developing an alternative such as wind or solar, or you bring down the demand by creating efficiencies, in homes, cars, and businesses, explained Audley.
By 2025, the big utilities are required to supply Oregonians with 25 percent of their power from renewables. Currently, efficiencies are not calculated into the 2025 alternative energy requirements for Oregon.
For Audley, it’s an economic question: “I don’t talk about global warming as much as I used to,” he says, “I sell it on economic developments.”
Asked about the array of alternatives that the northwest project is advocating, Audley responds: “It helps to have diversified technologies and diversified geographies, because people need diversified energy.”
Audley closed on an optimistic note, outlining how renewable portfolio standards had secured bipartisan support throughout the northwest.
The talks emphasized, from an array of perspectives, the regions leadership in environmentalism and alternative energies. The speakers enthusiastically focused on the fact that the economics of renewables, coming out of the recession, are making increasing sense. Of course, without binding legislation, another economic glitch could, once again, derail all this progress.
Ilie Mitaru is an associate writer for Oregon Business.