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On the scene: Emerging energy solutions

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On the Scene
Friday, February 17, 2012

By Emma Hall

In the past, picturing alternative energy solutions might have conjured up images of a VW bus running on vegetable oil reclaimed from local fast food joints. Now, especially in the Northwest, new energy solutions are so much more.

Emerging and alternative energy solutions was just one of the ideas discussed at Portland's Green Professionals Conference this week. Jason Busch of the Oregon Wave Energy Trust, Ross Macfarlane of Climate Solutions, and Alex Schay of Carbon Solutions NW gathered to explain how the market was expanding, with the Pacific Northwest as a natural hub for the industry.

Jason Busch said that Oregon was an emerging leader in the wave energy industry. Although solar might be a more well-known alternative energy, wave energy is on its way up. One half of the world's population lives within 100 miles of the coast, so the opportunities are immense.

"Ocean energy is today where solar was 30-40 years ago," Busch said.

He lamented the fact that solar and wind energies were mostly exported to other countries, and stressed that wave energy should be kept here. This could create jobs locally, such as how Oregon Power Technologies chose Oregon Iron Works to build its first PowerBuoy, which created approximately 30 union wave jobs for nine months. That was just to build one device—if Oregon embraced wave energy on a larger level, it could create many more jobs for years to come, he said.

Another emerging energy centered in the Northwest is the search for sustainable aviation fuels. Ross Macfarlane explained that aviation industry leaders were pushing for innovation in this field—unusual because alternative energies are usually a supply-side pushed innovation. The reasoning is mostly cost-driven—petroleum price swings are the biggest factor in airline costs.

Boeing, Alaska Airlines, and the region's three largest airports joined together to form Sustainable Aviation Fuels Northwest to explore greener ways for airlines to operate.

Macfarlane said that it was important to set priorities for biofuels where they are most needed, like in aviation. Ground transportation has opportunities like electric cars and mass transit, "but it will be a long time before we have plug in planes."

So why is the Northwest a hub for these aviation innovations, when there are larger airlines elsewhere? The answer is a combination of aviation leadership (Alaska Airlines is the first to have regularly scheduled biofuel flights) and the sheer amount of biostocks available here—including large ones like oil seeds, forest slash, solid waste and algae. These are supplemented by smaller feedstocks like hybrid poplar, for which ZeaChem recently got a $232 million loan guarantee.

Just as wave energy has the potential to create jobs in the Northwest, so does aviation biofuel production, especially in rural areas hit hard by the down logging industry. The first transatlantic flight to use biofuel used Northwest-grown fuel.

As fuel becomes more costly, and alternative fuels become more widely accepted, the Northwest is seen as uniquely situated to embrace this change, bringing jobs and new industries to the area. Busch said that his advice to any job seekers or students considering their area of study is that they should look into utilities, as the market is developing rapidly.

"The technologies of the future will be new and complex, and hopefully more and more green," Busch said.

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