ASHLAND, ORE. — As official Washington argues over a national energy policy based largely on fossil fuels, the Pacific Northwest is pushing to become a leader in "green" energy development worldwide.
Businesses, utilities, government agencies, and homeowners across the region are taking up the cause of environmentally friendly energy - everything from the world's largest wind farm along the Columbia River gorge to the world's only solar-powered Shakespeare festival here in southern Oregon.
Seattle City Light is the first municipally owned utility in the country officially committed to eliminating 100 percent of its global warming emissions. The Washington Technology Center at the University of Washington is working with industry groups on miniature fuel cells.
And even the Bonneville Power Administration, the federal agency in charge of the massive hydropower dams that produce about half the region's electricity, is on its way to becoming the largest supplier of wind energy in the country. BPA also is conducting the world's first residential pilot program for fuel cells (which combine hydrogen and oxygen to produce electricity, leaving only water).
"We're on the threshold of an energy efficiency revolution," says Washington Governor Gary Locke. "If we're smart, we'll stay a step ahead of the market and provide the clean-energy decade with the tools it needs."
Clean energy is already a $1.4 billion business in Washington, Oregon, and British Columbia, according to a recent market analysis published by Climate Solutions, a nonprofit organization in Olympia, Wash. That's expected to grow to $4 billion a year over the next 20 years, creating as many as 32,000 new jobs.
The prospect of jobs is a very important component here. With the recent slowdown in high-tech industries and Boeing Company's headquarters move from Seattle to Chicago, Oregon and Washington are the worse-off states in the nation in terms of unemployment. As questions of deregulation, cost, foreign imports, and environmental impact swirl around the debate over a national energy strategy, officials here see hope in the future of renewable energy.
"There are emerging industries capable of creating new jobs that not only strengthen our economy, but also promote the conservation values unique to the Pacific Northwest," says Vera Katz, mayor of Portland, Ore.
Mayor Katz recently announced that the city is wooing Vestas Wind Systems of Denmark.
The company, one of the largest makers of wind turbines in the world, is considering Portland as the site of a large manufacturing facility - a move that could mean 600 new jobs.
Not everyone is so starry-eyed about the economic promise of renewable energy. The Cato Institute, a research foundation in Washington that advocates limited government and free markets, asserts that without government support the renewable-energy industry "would cease to exist."
"The main disadvantage of renewable energy is its capital costs," Cato analysts Jerry Taylor and Peter VanDoren wrote recently. To the extent that states continue to deregulate their electricity markets, they say, investors will "find it riskier to invest in capital-intensive technologies."
Supporters of renewable energy acknowledge that tax breaks, research grants, and other forms of government assistance may be necessary for now.
While President Bush and the Democrats argue over the relative merits of fuel cells versus shorter-range improvements in the efficiency of internal combustion engines, no one - including conservative Western politicians normally friendly to fossil fuels and nuclear energy - wants to eliminate federal support for renewable energy.
"Every industry needs a boost at the beginning," says Patrick Mazza, an energy analyst in Seattle. That need will diminish as the cost of renewably produced energy comes down. Today, for example, the gap between wind and natural gas in the cost of electricity production has shrunk to 1 to 2 cents per kilowatt-hour, says Mr. Mazza.
Germany, Denmark, Japan, and several other countries are aggressively marketing their renewable-energy technology. Ironically, some of this came from US companies purchased and moved abroad when this country reduced its government support in the 1980s. Advocates of renewable energy warn that the United States should not fall behind at a time when wind generating capacity around the world is growing at more than 30 percent a year.
"We should have some US production of these technologies, otherwise we'll have another trade deficit," says Mazza.
Up on the windy bluffs above the Columbia River, not far from Walla Walla, Wash.,the horizon is marked with hundreds of new state-of-the-art wind turbines built and operated by a consortium.
When fully operational, the Stateline Wind Generating Project will include 450 turbines supplying enough electricity to power the equivalent of 70,000 homes. As is happening in other parts of the country, farmers and ranchers there will earn regular income in return for having the large windmills on their land.
Cleaner, more efficient energy generation in the Northwest doesn't just mean wind-driven turbines and solar panels. Down near the California border, Klamath Falls, Ore., recently fired up its new natural gas cogeneration facility producing 484 megawatts of electrical power (enough to power about 400,000 homes).
City officials were proud to announce that it is "the cleanest fossil-fuel power plant ever constructed in the US in terms of greenhouse gas emissions."