Lake County, Oregon is taking steps to become the nation’s first county to offset all of its fossil fuel emissions with renewable geothermal, solar, and biomass energy.
Small scale solar in Lakeview, Oregon
Lakeview, Oregon is set in a fire adapted landscape, where managing and preparing for the constant possibility of wildfire impacts all decision-making. The timber wars of the 1980s and early 1990s effectively shut down the adjacent Fremont-Winema National Forest, four of the five sawmills were forced to close, and over 800 jobs were lost. Over the next decade, the forest became increasingly fire prone and the community faced conflict and poverty.
In 1998, county leadership invited Sustainable Northwest to assist them in bringing together 100 environmentalists, scientists, federal agency personnel, timber industry staff, and community members to do what many thought was impossible: talk to each other and find a solution that worked for all involved. We worked hand in hand with local leaders to convene and facilitate dialogues over the next few years, ultimately resulting in the formation of Lake County Resources Initiative and the Lakeview Stewardship Group, a forest collaborative dedicated to restoring and maintaining the ecological well-being of the Fremont-Winema National Forest, while deriving sustainable economic benefits from its resources.
The community sought to revitalize its forest industry through the creation of jobs driven by the need for restoration, especially in the face of emerging landscape-level threats such as climate change. However, the difficult forest health and economic circumstances that faced Lake County would not be relieved with remnants of its traditional logging economy; something else had to fill the gap.
Lake County Resources Initiative set out to define a different vision for the region. They recognized and valued that their county has been bestowed with natural resources well beyond the trees and grasslands that supported its traditional forest products and ranching industries. Sitting atop the Abert Fault Line, geothermal energy is prevalent across the landscape, and the regional climate provides for some of the most consistent sunlight in the nation. Furthermore, fuels reduction in the forest and residue byproducts from the local mill resulted in tremendous amounts of waste wood that served no immediate purpose, but grew in size each year.
So within the Oregon desert, this relentless community built the foundation for a new natural resource economy; and set an audacious goal. Lake County is attempting to become the nation’s first county to offset all of its fossil fuel emissions with renewable geothermal, solar, and biomass energy. And if Jim Walls has anything to say about it, you better believe that they’re going to get there.
Leading the Charge
Jim Walls is a cowboy, and not metaphorically or like the wooden caricature that greets you as you enter town. When you add up the boots and hat, he’s seven solid feet of booming voice that will be happy to talk to you about the local timber market right after he feeds his horses. But ask him about recent advancements in solar panel technology and watch his eyes really light up. Jim Walls is also the Executive Director of Lake County Resources Initiative, and the man who many would call the shepherd of Lakeview’s bold new future. At the invitation of local leaders and with support from Sustainable Northwest, Jim took the helm at LCRI in 2001 to help lead the community out of its darkest hour. The community had fallen into a state of conflict stemming from the near death of the regional timber industry when 4 out of the 5 local mills closed, and hundreds of jobs were lost.
Under Jim’s watch, LCRI emerged from the previous decade’s conflicts with the goal of promoting local workforce training and sustainable economic development in the county. They’ve worked in collaboration with environmental groups and timber businesses—former adversaries during the timber bust—to preserve the ecological and economic functions of the Fremont-Winema National Forest, assist local contractors in doing business with the federal government, develop creative landscape monitoring to measure their progress, and now are the driving force behind Lake County’s renewable energy push. Without on-the-ground technical assistance and guidance from LCRI, it is improbable that Lake County would have made such tremendous progress in the last decade. But it’s also the intangible benefits that make LCRI, and other community-based organizations, so critical to rural community resiliency. Change is about more than project management and politics; it’s also about generating a spirit of entrepreneurship and open-mindedness to catalyze innovation at the most fundamental level.
More than the Trees are Green
In rural areas like Lake County that lack access to natural gas, more expensive sources of energy like heating oil and electric heat are used in facilities and homes. As a result, the cost of thermal energy (i.e. heating and cooling buildings) is well above average. Institutional facilities like hospitals, schools, and prisons are especially vulnerable to rising fuel costs, as they consume significant amounts of energy. So when Lake District Hospital conducted a massive renovation in 2011, the addition of a geothermal heating system for the facility was an obvious choice. Similar work has been done down the street at Warner Creek Correctional Facility, which also uses a geothermal system, and the next stage of this process will be a retrofit of the outdated boilers at four local schools. This work is possible due to a $1 million geothermal energy retrofit grant available through President Obama’s American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, and a unique venture between the town of Lakeview, the school district, and the hospital. This project has created a district heating system that is already saving the hospital $100,000 a year in reduced heating costs. By fall of 2013, the town hopes to have geothermal energy supplying the heating and cooling needs of the school district, estimating additional annual savings of $50,000. These savings are nearly enough to hire two teachers, a substantial difference in a school district of 700 students facing potential budget cuts.
The county is also exploring woody biomass projects to not only fulfill its energy needs, but also to improve forest health. Forest restoration treatments in Lake County have resulted in massive amounts of small diameter wood byproducts that have no immediate value. Without an alternative purpose, they are often burned in the forest or simply left in piles, exacerbating the risk of uncharacteristically negative wildfire. However, this material can be burned to generate both electricity and heat, and the added value can help offset the costs of restoration treatments to conduct more work. The local sawmill also produces massive amounts of wood residue that could feed a biomass facility. To date, political and financing hurdles have prohibited biomass energy developments in the county, but the desire to pursue them has not waned. Long-term goals may include a district energy system to supply the electricity and heating needs of downtown Lakeview. The potential for cost-savings, job creation, and energy security from reduced fossil fuel demand in the county are tremendous.
To learn more about Lakeview’s timber history, the role Sustainable Northwest played in helping create Lake County Resources Initiative, and the inspiring progress local leaders in Lakeview have made toward a carbon neutral renewable energy future, read the full story: The Cowboy.