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Opportunities going to waste

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The US Northwest is brimming with opportunities for economic expansion into the clean energy business, but utilities in the area are failing to even meet regional standards for investment in energy saving and renewables. These are the messages contained in two separate reports by independent environment groups.

The Northwest, already a "clean-energy Silicon Valley," should seize on the opportunities in clean energy and become a centre for the industry, states the Atmosphere Alliance, a project of the Earth Island Institute in Olympia, Washington. Wind and solar are the world's fastest growing energy sources, both at a current 25% expansion rate, the alliance says in its report "How The Northwest Can Lead a Clean Energy Revolution."

A public policy leader in energy, the Northwest should build on its existing clean energy industry. So far, alternative energy companies in the Northwest include a company in Vancouver that provides all the silicon for the world's largest solar cell plant and a firm in Arlington that is the world's largest maker of solar panel electronics, the alliance says. "A rapidly growing Northwest clean energy industry has major potential for cross-fertilisation with the region's other high tech and transportation businesses," adds the report.

The Northwest is well positioned because it is "intimately connected" to Asian nations that represent large new markets for clean energy technologies. And the report also points out that the area's skilled workforce and quality of life are attractive to alternative energy industries. But to ensure the industry's potential is realised, the region needs tax incentives, low-cost loans, business retention and recruitment programs, export promotion and research and development.

"The region has all the business, technical, and policy resources needed to lead in clean energy. Will we assemble our assets into a coherent effort and decisively move forward? If we do, it will mean economic gain for us. But more profoundly, it will increase our chances for averting climatic catastrophe," says the report.

Below par

According to a separate study, however, utilities in Washington and Oregon are failing to meet regional standards for investing in energy conservation, renewable energy and "weatherisation," or insulation, of low-income family homes.

The Northwest Energy Coalition, an alliance of environmental groups and utilities in the Northwest, finds that PacifiCorp had the lowest overall conservation investment for all utilities over the past four years, and Lewis County Public Utility District had the lowest for publicly owned utilities. PacifiCorp's 1997 investment in clean energy and energy saving was just 0.6% of total retail revenues, according to the coalition. In 1995, the company's investment was 2.43% of total retail revenues.

The regional standard is a minimum investment of 3% of total retail revenues. It was established by the Comprehensive Review of the Northwest Energy System, a committee convened by the governors of the four Northwest states. While the utilities agreed to the standard, they are not required by law to meet it. "Because they are rushing to slash costs due to competition as the industry is restructured, the first thing they are cutting is investments in conservation and renewable energy," says a coalition spokesperson.

The study points out that no utility met the review's non-hydro renewable standard: 0.57% of total retail revenues. Four utilities, however, had wind projects underway before 1996, when the review issued its standards: PacifiCorp, Portland General Electric, Eugene Water & Electric Board and Salem Electric. These projects were not eligible to meet the standard.

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