Congressman David Wu has been working behind the scenes for more than a year with utility executives, green building experts and university leaders to boost federal support for green building innovations in Oregon. The $129 million proposal that has emerged from that work could build a sustainable foundation for an industry that stands out as one of the state’s few bright spots.
The proposal, which was submitted in May, calls for $129 million over five years to fund applied research into making buildings more efficient. If it wins approval from the U.S. Department of Energy, it would immediately boost research activity and create high-paying R&D jobs. It would also improve the long-term prospects for key Oregon businesses that have invested significantly in sustainable business practices, such as Gerding Edlen Development, ZGF Architects, the Neil Kelly Company, Portland Energy Conservation and Intel.
“The idea is to build a research base that will be immediately applicable to the entire country but also helps with our local energy efficiency industry,” Wu told me during an interview last Friday. “Companies like Gerding Edlen and ZGF, they’re already the leaders. That’s why we have such a strong application.”
Wu says competition will be intense for the federal money, with similar proposals coming from California, the Midwest and the Northeast.
“The Department of Energy will be the lead on this and [Energy Secretary Steven Chu] is very smart about energy. He wants transformative work to come out of this, and we have a very smart group locally that will do exactly that sort of work. Nobody else can touch us for local expertise. We already have a green construction sweet spot. Now we need the research component to support it.”
The grant money would support sustainability research under way at Pacific Northwest National Labs and at Oregon universities, where professors are already studying everything from energy-saving awnings to inserting wax into walls to improve HVAC efficiency. Portland State University in particular stands to gain significantly from the grant. A fresh influx of federal money would add to the momentum generated by the $25 million James F. and Marion L. Miller Foundation sustainability grant, the largest private donation in the university’s history. Researchers at PSU are already studying groundbreaking new ways to make buildings greener, including compelling research into how to combine photovoltaic panels with green roofs to create electricity instead of using it and soak up rainwater instead of running it through pipes and unnecessarily flooding the system. Five years of research support would lead to countless other innovations, and eventually jobs as well.
There’s no guarantee that Wu’s green lab will beat out the competition. But the case he makes for Oregon is a strong one. The Department of Energy should make its final decision about where to funnel the money this fall.
Ben Jacklet is managing editor of Oregon Business.