Renewable Energy's Promise

Securing the promise of emerging sustainable industries in WA
Last week's first entry in the Back to the Roots series introduced that program and posed this question:

How can we best realize the economic and environmental promise of Washington's emerging alternative energy and sustainable farming industries? Are we doing all we can to secure a fair share of this promise for the people and communities of this state?

We are at a critical time because these industries are developing fast. New infrastructure, physical, economic and political, is being formed. Our opportunities are fluid now, but less so as we go on. Our future depends upon how well we understand and respond to today's opportunities.

This is a question for all regions of the state. Urban gentrification, habitat loss, suburban sprawl, rural poverty, and climate change are different aspects of the same interlocking network of problems.  The promise of these emerging land resource industries -- which offers us an unprecedented opportunity to make great progress on solving these problems -- belongs to all people in the state. It is a promise of and for the commons.

How much wealth are we talking about?
Wind farms, solar installations, dairy manure digesters, oil seed crushers, active forest management, and crops like switchgrass, wheat, and mustard seed - these technologies and resources can make it possible for us to transition to clean and secure energy that is locally produced -- or at least produced in the United States.   There's big money in this stuff.

NW Seed and the Land and Water Fund of the Rockies states, in their Energy Atlas that wind, solar, and biomass in Washington can generate more electricity than we use in this state. According to Washington's Department of Ecology, we would have the capacity, if all our biomass waste were converted to energy, to supply half the energy needs of our state.   We have great potential in terms of alternative fuel, as well.   In fact, this is the area in which much of our greatest need and promise resides.   We have now the technology and agricultural capacity to fuel many of the vehicles on our roads with fuels from alternative sources.  The new renewable fuels standard that passed this legislative session HB 6508, constitutes a real environmental victory that puts Washington in the forefront nationally and will stimulate biofuel markets in-state. Value-added products, such as fuel produced from dairy manure, have great potential for boosting local economies.

The wealth is in Research and Development, as well. Northwest Energy Technology Collaborative paints a rosy picture of our position, urging that we create "the self fulfilling prophecy that the Pacific Northwest is the 'Center of the World' in new energy technology development."

And in addition to economic wealth, there is great 'social wealth' at stake. These new industries present us with a golden opportunity to make progress in diversifying and decentralizing production, distribution, and economic opportunity related to both food and energy. It is widely recognized that this kind of distribution would make us much more physically, economically, and environmentally secure.

There is also a question of the distribution of political power. It is worthwhile to ask: who are the stakeholders in Washington who do not have enough power or voice to be heard in this dialogue -- or to even know they can enter it. Who is missing at the policy and funding table? This is an environmental and economic question -- as well as one of social justice

State industries in a global context
There is wide awareness in Washington regarding the need for local control of the structure of the state's Ag-Energy industry.  The legislature and agencies such as the WA Department of Community, Trade and Economic Development's, WACTED, are on the case.   A strong non-profit sector has been working for years on  appropriate development of alternative energy.   The Cascade Agenda, a recent community-based conservation and smart-growth initiative, addresses sustainable farming, food security, and the need to maintain our agricultural resources in a "post-oil" future.

But a common pattern in the establishment of a new industry is that government and the private sector take the initial risks. And then, despite their investment and vigilance, control and profits shift away from local economies. In light of the powerful global economic forces operating today, as well as the well-funded and politically volatile development pressures here in Washington, our existing level of vigilance may not be enough.

An unclear picture
The promise of alternative energy in Washington State is being developed now by governmental entities on all levels, private enterprise, and the public sector.   The major players are engaged and consistently attaining major accomplishments.  However, Washington is behind other progressive states in terms of developing its regional resources for energy purposes.  This past legislative session,   HB 2939, which established The Energy Freedom Program, set aside $15 million annually for low-cost loans and grants to biofuel startups.  This is a good start.  However, stronger sources of state funding are necessary on a consistent basis.  The National Housing Trust Fund, which serves as a source of revenue for the production of new housing, could provide a model for the kind of program that would support renewable energy development in Washington.

There appears to be additional need to 'pull it all together', -- to create a forum for comprehensive information gathering, analysis, and action at the intersection of the related impacts: economic, environmental, political, and social justice.  We are holding a great hand of cards, but we don't clearly see them.

We can ask, for example, whether the following examples tell us that we may not be sufficiently developing our in-state capacity or an infrastructure that allows community-based enterprise to flourish:

  • The biggest wind farm in the U.S. is Stateline Wind, which straddles the Washington/Oregon border.  It is owned by FPL Energy - a Florida company. It is served in its marketing needs by PPM Energy, which is owned by Scottish Power.
  • Wi BioFuels, a Phoenix-based company is proposing to build an oilseed crushing and biodiesel plant at the Port of Wilma in Whitman County which, at a proposed production level of 15 million gallons of biodiesel annually, would dwarf the current production of 5 million gallons produced by Seattle Biodiesel Washington State's only existing refinery which processes biodiesel from virgin crops (two other refineries process biodiesel from waste-oil).
  • Seattle Biodiesel would like to use Washington State crops to produce its product -- but we don't grow enough. They now buy largely from out-of-state
  • Washington gets approximately 18% of its electrical power from coal (the national average is about 51%). Much of this coal comes from out of state. Are we doing all we can to replace coal with renewables and conservation measures that benefit us in-state? We may be poised on the edge of answering this question in important ways. Energy Northwest, a joint operating agency of 19 Washington state public utilities, is reported to be close to applying for a permit to site a new coal plant in Kalama, Washington. Northwest Energy Coalition has responded that it sees the proposed coal plant as unnecessary and "a major step backward for Washington residents". If I-937 passes, we may be less likely to see that coal plant built.
  • Bill Virgin reported in the Seattle PI on 2/9/06, that Moses Lake Ethanol is trying to build an ethanol plant in Grant County. The current proposal calls for a 100 million-gallon-a-year plant that uses corn -- not currently a crop in that area, and not a crop that is ideal for Washington. In light of emerging opportunities to base our renewable energy industry on crops we can grow here, is this a good option?
  • Are we using the full range of our alternative fuel options in Washington, including options that work well on the community level? Is there enough attention, for example, to opportunities for liquified and compressed natural gas (LNG and CNG) from dairy manure and other sources?
  • The Associated Press reports that there has been a major shift in ownership of ethanol plants nationally. This article cites the Renewable Fuels Association trade group that, of 42 plants under construction now, only six are farmer-owned. The author continues: "The investment shift could have far-reaching affect (sic) on who owns the ethanol production industry, an issue of particular interest to farmers.
  • Washington State's Department of Community, Trade, and Economic Development reported in 2005 that the City of Seattle and the Washington State Ferry system use several hundred thousand gallons of biodiesel annually in their fleets and that all of this fuel comes from the Midwest.

    Maybe Seattle Biodiesel, which is planning construction of a larger plant, will be able to step into supplying a portion of our ferry system's biodiesel needs. Last year SSA Marine became one of the first big port companies in the area to agree to use biodiesel in its daily operations. With the aid of Maria Cantwell, Seattle Biodiesel landed the contract to supply this fuel. It is not clear to what extent there could be structural industry support in Washington State that would bypass the need for this case-by-case approach.

Conservative resistance
We don't fully understand, either, the meaning and scope of conservative resistance against supporting in-state profits from renewable fuels.   How deep is this resistance and how much is it affecting development of Ag-Energy in Washington?  A recent Tacoma News Tribune article by Richard Davis, who heads up the Washington Research Council, an organization that receives oil industry funding and that partners closely with Washington Association of Businesses, argued against the need for Washington's renewable fuel standard - citing it as a "market manipulation".  The right-wing blog, Sound Politics, followed up with an editorial blasting both renewable fuels bills as boondoggles.

What kinds of policies and laws might support small and mid-sized in-state investment in Ag-Energy?
Consistent and comprehensive tracking and analysis of the public and private structure of alternative energy development in Washington would result in an integrated picture of where the policy gaps are in Washington State.   Two  specific recommendations were shared with me by Don Hopps and Kevin Fullerton, the Director and the Policy and Government Relations Associate for IWF.  They're outlined below.

A new "Seattle Bonneville Power Administration"?
Seattle City Light (SCL) has invested significantly in renewable energy and conservation.  Could SCL become "Seattle's Bonneville Power Administration" - in other words, could SCL become an owner-operator of profit-generating alternative energy production facilities?

SCL's climate mitigation program has made it the first major U.S. utility to produce zero "net" greenhouse gases. The program is a great success.  Its associated costs are well worthwhile; however, there may be no reason why SCL could not turn these costs, or this liability, into an asset by investing in its own bioenergy generating plants. If this is possible, SCL could run a major profit-generating venture that would have significant environmental benefits beyond its current mitigation achievements - and that would create funds to channel to other worthy investments within the city - perhaps to help fund low-income housing.

Ag-Energy Investor Advocates

Another policy idea supported by IWF staff that would help spur state investment in and profit from Ag-Energy in Washington would be state assistance for small and mid-sized start-ups in meeting regulatory requirements. The current requirements are so complex that they present a barrier to the establishment of new businesses. There is a provision in the 2002 U.S. Farm Bill that was, unfortunately, not funded that could act as a partial model for such a program.

Mainstreaming the Mainstream -- Bringing Core Issues Into Political Dialog
Although there is a growing Common Assets movement, public discourse on property rights has been much more present in the media than any discussion of the commons or of shared responsibilities and resources.  The Right has nurtured and developed property-rights theories that fuel citizen activism against public investment and environmental protections.   There is much less nurturance of the wider perspective - that ownership and local control issues reside within a larger community context, that a strong commons  is necessary to protect private property and well-being. Projects such as The Cascade Agenda, that do consider this larger public good, need wider grassroots recognition.

Wendell Berry, in his recent book of essays, The Way of Ignorance, wrote:

People exploit what they have merely concluded to be of value. But they defend what they love. To defend what we love, we need a particularizing language, for we love what we particularly know.

Berry and Daniel Kemmis, another contemporary author who also writes on community and place, have pointed out that we lack in our political culture the language to describe some of the things that are most important to us.   It seems intuitively obvious that people can better defend what they have the language to describe.  If this is the case,  then it certainly is time to find new ways to talk about the commons -- those things that sustain all of us and are not “severable” or completely isolatable from the greater good or shared wealth of the community -- and about just and sustainable use of our resources and land.

Property Rights and Ownership
The property rights movement has raised central issues.   Ownership and autonomy,  place-based knowledge and expertise, economic security: these issues define our current political and environmental landscape.   But they are framed narrowly in the property rights discourse. Policies that protect the larger public good are depicted as "takings" - or theft - from private owners.    An alternative, and more realistic, understanding is that a strong commons upholds the value of private property -- as well as the health of people and communities. Private wealth in the midst of public decline is like a mansion in a blighted neighborhood.   It is urgent that we strengthen, not weaken the commons, particularly in light of such serious challenges as climate change, diminishing profitability of sustainable uses of land, sprawl, and disturbing political trends.

This year, we are likely to be voting on a property rights ballot initiative, I-933.  If successful, I-933 likely undo many of the environmental and zoning laws in our state and result in a rapid expansion of out-of-control development. These matters are in the hands of Washington's citizens who must rely,, in part, on their understanding of the common good in order to make them.

There is a critical need to turn this debate around, to develop new language and vision on issues of ownership, community, and autonomy.   The Back to the Roots program, in collaboration with Washblog, Evergreen Politics.com, and Pacific Views, proposes to sponsor and promote discussion to this end.  Beginning in late spring and early summer of this year, we will be publishing blog entries on topics related to community, the commons, and sustainable use of resources from a variety of authors.  We'll be actively encouraging discussion on these topics through the comments feature of the blogs.   And we'll be holding a series of forums on these topics beginning late this summer.   This is an experiment. However it turns out, we expect to gain valuable new insights.

Institute for Washington's Future (IWF), the program's sponsor, is a natural advocate for community-based enterprise in the Ag-Energy realm.  This community-based organization was founded in the early 1990s to help bridge the divide between environmentalists and displaced timber workers and to create economic opportunities for these workers.  IWF has initiated an innovative dairy manure conversion project in Yakima, is advancing other on-the-ground renewable energy projects in Washington, actively lobbies for renewable energy development in our state, and has long worked to stimulate and support community-based enterprise in rural areas. IWF's mission includes the recognition that, in order to protect our land, air, and water, we must protect the economic wellbeing of the people who depend upon land-based resources for their livelihoods.

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I agree that we need a much more conscious and engaged discussion about the commons.  We have a commons, whether we talk about it.  People value our common resources and common places, whether they label them a commons or not.  And we as a society (through our government, our legal structures, our consumer choices, our relations with our neighbors) decide how we'll use our common places and common resources, whether we label them a commons or not.  I think the value and connection we all feel toward the commons should be a powerful force, if we can tap into it.  Naming the commons is an important step in making our values have a bigger impact in politics.

by fritzbrown on Wed Mar 29, 2006 at 08:54:34 AM PST

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Trying to understand:  Is the article saying that it would be economically advantageous to take part in and support, rather than fight, environmental protection and public investment -- the "commons" concept?  That if they used their land for, say, biodiesel crops, that would be a way to support a farming/ranching way of life while at the same time protecting the environment and therefore the community?
I think addressing the economic concerns of property owners is absolutely necessary, if we're to begin a dialog with property owners.  Many are just trying to make a living like the rest of us, and if we brush that need aside as less important than the public's need for a healthy environment we'll just get into more confrontations and never arrive at solutions.  Having said that, I also think that once the basic economic concerns are addressed there's a whole emotional/philosophical side that would need to be looked at too.  "Property rights" strikes a deep chord -- it's connected to the belief in freedom.  As Berry's quote said, people will defend (fight) for what they love, and freedom is what we all love and hold dear.
If I'm way off base here, please be patient -- new blogger and I have no background in this subject aside from having grown up in a farming/ranching community.

Lynn House

by Lynn House on Thu Mar 30, 2006 at 04:27:23 PM PST

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There is a lot of great information in this article.     It would be helpful to say the specific action the average citizen could do in the first paragraph.  Then the supporting info could follow as back up.  Excellent work!

by Jeanne123 on Tue Apr 04, 2006 at 02:39:18 PM PST

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"Villifying the wrong people", was renamed: "Big Bad Alternative Fuel?" and moved to the diaries section.

by noemie maxwell on Mon Apr 10, 2006 at 02:16:04 PM PST

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[Hmmm... I just deleted Amokire's  comment below, which included a couple hundred spam links.  Here it is unadorned with spam.]

I think addressing the economic concerns of property owners is absolutely necessary, if we're to begin a dialog with property owners.  Many are just trying to make a living like the rest of us, and if we brush that need aside as less important than the public's need for a healthy environment we'll just get into more confrontations and never arrive at solutions.  Having said that, I also think that once the basic economic concerns are addressed there's a whole emotional/philosophical side that would need to be looked at too.  "Property rights" strikes a deep chord -- it's connected to the belief in freedom.  As Berry's quote said, people will defend (fight) for what they love, and freedom is what we all love and hold dear.

If I'm way off base here, please be patient -- new blogger and I have no background in this subject aside from having grown up in a farming/ranching community.

by noemie maxwell on Tue Nov 21, 2006 at 10:26:49 AM PST

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