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The power of ideas

Posted by Renee Magyar on December 19, 2013

Rural leaders and energy experts met to chart a path to a renewable energy economy in rural Oregon

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Credit: Obsidian Renewables

Under the watchful gaze of central Oregon's Three Sisters mountains, 50 local leaders and energy experts met last week for a workshop co-hosted by State House Minority Leader Mike McLane, Representative Jules Bailey, and Sustainable Northwest. The broad and ambitious goal for this day of knowledge sharing was to begin to chart a path toward economic development and ecological restoration through renewable energy projects.

The City of Prineville took a big step in that direction in 2011 when they succeeded in striking a deal with Facebook to build a new energy efficient data center - one of three that the tech giant operates worldwide. Data centers have high energy demands, and Oregon's low cost power and cool climate attracted Facebook to the region. To reduce their energy consumption, Facebook installed state of the art, energy efficient air filtration and cooling systems that use cool outdoor air to moderate indoor temperatures.

Prineville Mayor Betty Roppe, City Manager Steve Forrester, and Crook County Judge Mike McCabe, local city officials who worked together to accommodate Facebook, described their role in closing the deal. They recounted the pressing need to bring jobs to the county. "We were nimble in our ability and we did it gladly because we needed the jobs," said Judge McCabe. 

During the workshop, Mayor Roppe reflected on the state of the local economy. "Crook County had 21% unemployment in 2009 which gave us a great sense of urgency. We only had timber and tires and we had been hit hard in the recession, we had to think outside of the box," said Roppe. 

The passage of Oregon's 2012 Data Center Jobs Bill was a key component that allowed the Prineville Data Center project to move forward. Representative McLane, a Republican from Crook County, championed the bill, and garnered necessary support from Governor Kitzhaber. 

Part of the success of the 2012 Jobs Bill was support it also received from Jules Bailey, Chair of Oregon's Committee on Energy and Environment, and Portland Representative for the Democratic party. Representative McLane described working collaboratively with Representative Bailey in 2012 for an economic solution for District 55, the hardest hit county in the state. "I went to Bailey and others to save one of the only economic development opportunities in Crook County," stated McLane. 

Through the course of the workshop, McLane committed to continue working toward new renewable energy policies. "It's hard not to like clean energy. We need to find solutions that unlock natural resources and bring prosperity to rural Oregon." This goal was a component of the priorities recently announced in the Oregon Business Plan. McLane added "Now comes the hard part. How do you do that? One thing we can agree on is new energy projects. They absolutely bring value to rural Oregon. The next step is determining what are the policy implications and what can the legislature do."

The State legislators turned to participants to offer their suggestions. Among the attendees were local leaders, non-profits, union representatives, energy developers, energy industry representatives, environmentalists, ranchers, small wind developers, irrigation districts, Central Electric Cooperative, the publically owned local co-op, Bonneville Power Administration, one of the region's energy producers, and the Northwest Power and Conservation Council, an organization that oversees energy producers and distributors on the Columbia River power generation system. 

Participants called on their fellow leaders and state legislators to monetize the benefits that clean energy projects can provide to small Oregon towns. Often energy projects are measured in kilowatts generated, but there was a recognized need to also take into account the ancillary benefits, like how many jobs might be created with a new project, or how much carbon emission might be avoided from using a renewable energy source, like solar, versus fossil fuel.

Participants also pointed out the need for more long-term certainty with state energy policy, tax credits, and other incentive programs needed to attract investors to a renewable energy marketplace, and that will allow renewables to compete with low cost natural gas. 

McLane and Bailey showed a commitment to continue working together across the political aisle and county lines to bring prosperity to rural Oregon through renewable energy projects. As Representative Bailey stated, "Portland residents are just as concerned about what's happening in the rest of the state. We're all rowing in the same boat."

Thank you again to our sponsors for making this event possible: Obsidian Renewables, Pacific Power, Energy Trust of Oregon, Community Renewable Energy Association