The Climate-friendly Northwest

Northwest farmers, cities, and entrepreneurs are doing what the federal government can’t or won’t do about climate change—and contrary to the dire predictions, taking action is benefiting, not harming, the economy

Farmers, ranchers, and rural communities have been experiencing hard times for many years. But a new version of a not-so-new technology may ease the financial stresses of farming in a time of globalization. Rancher Royal Raymond, whose land is located near Helix, Oregon, is earning about $2,000 per year for each of 18 wind turbines located on his land. He leases just half an acre of land per turbine to the wind farm developers, making the impact on his ranching and wheat growing operations minimal. The Vansycle Wind Farm, which owns the turbines, also sends $250,000 in tax payments to financially strapped local governments each year.

The wind blows hard and steady in many parts of the Pacific Northwest. With dramatic improvements in wind turbine technology in the 1990s, this abundant resource has become a winner for utilities, entrepreneurs, and even farmers. The region's first wind farm went on line in 1998. Now more than 600 megawatts are in operation, enough to power 200,000 average homes.

The Pacific Northwest is just one region that has translated environmental entrepreneurship into new income, jobs, and taxes for rural communities, while reducing the region's share of greenhouse gas emissions. Farmers, ranchers, entrepreneurs, utilities, consumers, and political leaders are collaborating in new ways, and early results show they are achieving immediate economic benefits to the region even as they promote long-term global climate stability.

Efficiency: the cheapest source of energy

The Northwest got some early, hard lessons about the consequences of massive, centralized power plant construction. In the early 1980s the region was faced with a nuclear plant construction financial meltdown (known as WPPSS, pronounced whoops!), which became one of the largest municipal bond defaults in U.S. history. The Northwest learned its lesson, and institutionalized what was then a revolutionary idea being pushed by environmental activists: Use the least-cost power resource, and evaluate any proposed new generation plant against the opportunity to save energy.

The region found that by far the cheapest power is the power we save by using more efficient appliances and lighting, better insulated buildings, and advanced motors. Since then, investments in energy efficiency have saved the Northwest more than enough electricity to run two cities the size of Seattle, or one whole Idaho, while cutting the region's power bill at least $500 million each year. And energy planners have identified additional cost-effective savings opportunities nearly equal to the electricity demand of three more Seattles.

Energy efficiency turned out to be a critical tool in cutting the growth of greenhouse gas emissions while insulating the region from Enron-style (and WPPSS-style) energy shocks.

Biofuels: the new harvest

The Midwest is the heartland of ethanol production, but the Northwest is beginning to develop starch ethanol plants. The wheat stubble of the Palouse, Washington, which currently is burned, may be one of the richest sources of cellulose feedstocks in the western states.

Biodiesel, made from oil crops or waste oil, hearkens back to the original diesel engines that ran on vegetable oils. Biodiesel blends now run public vehicles in national parks, Tacoma, Seattle, and on some Washington State ferry runs. The inland Northwest is a center for the cultivation of oil crops; the announcement of an oils crushing plant near Spokane, Washington, is the precursor to a major biodiesel plant development.

The economic benefits of moving to biofuels are evident. For a region that produces no petroleum, biofuels keep money circulating at home. Farm groups have seen the opportunity, and now, along with Climate Solutions—a Northwest-based nonprofit organization that advocates for regional solutions to global warming—sponsor an annual Harvesting Clean Energy conference devoted to exploring biofuels and other farm-based energy opportunities.

An energy “web”

Climate Solutions has convened “Poised for Profit,” a collaborative process joining leading utilities, economic development agencies, and research centers in Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia to encourage a budding Northwest clean energy technology corridor.

The first Poised for Profit report issued in 2001 identified fuel cells and digital energy management systems as particular regional strengths, saying such companies could employ more than 30,000 people by 2020.

Digital technologies can help customers to use power more efficiently. A simple example is a sensor network that adjusts a building's lighting downward when sunlight is available and turns lights off when people are not present.

Digital technology also makes it possible to link and coordinate networks of small-scale low-to-zero-pollution energy generators such as fuel cells, micro-turbines, solar panels and wind turbines, sometimes called the “Energy Web.” The Energy Web will run like the Internet, not like the control rooms that oversee today's relatively simple grid centered on a limited number of big plants. Smart digital systems will automatically route power like they route information on the net. This technology will facilitate the introduction of distributed clean energy generation. Northwest companies already hold a $2 billion share of the $15 billion global digital technology industry.

The Poised for Profit initiative is providing visibility to a significant clean energy technology corridor, and that visibility has accelerated development. The cities of Portland and Seattle, and states of Oregon and Washington, have prioritized energy technology in economic development efforts. A new public-private partnership, the Northwest Energy Technology Collaborative, now works to help start-up companies develop and gain markets.

Action by public agencies

While the federal government remains on the sidelines of the global campaign to combat climate change, many U.S. states are right in the action. The three West Coast states have formed a climate protection compact covering an economy that would rank as the world's eighth largest greenhouse emissions source if ranked as a country. These states are implementing solutions, despite federal inaction, because the risks of waiting and the benefits of leadership have become too large to ignore.

Many local governments in the Northwest and around the world are likewise moving ahead with  climate action plans, many of which—like clean vehicles, traffic reduction, energy efficiency, and recycling—also help solve local livability challenges.

Seattle City Light, the city-owned utility, is on schedule to become the nation's first large “carbon neutral” electric utility in 2005. The Seattle-based Puget Sound Clean Air Agency is developing a climate action plan that will improve air quality in an area that includes over half the state's population.

State, local, and international determination to reduce global warming pollution is affecting private energy investments. PacifiCorp, a utility that relies heavily on coal and is the largest global warming polluter west of the Mississippi, has factored the cost of carbon disposal and fossil fuel price volatility into its new energy resource plans. As a result, the utility is soliciting bids for more than 1,000 megawatts of new renewable energy. Avoiding carbon risk is a new economic imperative for energy companies, driving investment toward solutions.

Fully addressing global warming will require action across the globe. No one region can solve the problem on its own. But localities and regions can play crucial roles, especially in a time when leadership at the national level is absent. New energy entrepreneurs, innovators of sophisticated efficiency technology, ranchers, political leaders, utilities, and consumers—all are stepping up to be part of the global climate solution.


Patrick Mazza is Climate Solutions Research Director. K.C. Golden is Climate Solutions Policy Director. Climate Solutions can be found at