Seven years ago, I helped author a Climate Solutions report, Carbon Free Prosperity, which analyzed the potential for Oregon and Washington to reach a goal of 74%-78% carbon-free electricity by 2025. In 2008, this target was considered aggressive, but achievable, due to the extensive hydroelectric resources already in place in the two states. This target requires considerable energy efficiency measures to be in place and new policy support to spur the uptake of new wind power, solar PV, biomass, and even wave, tidal, and concentrating solar power. The plan was coordinated with the Northwest Power & Conservation Council (NPCC), a regional planning powerhouse that is arguably one of the most influential entities in the region. At the end of 2015, new policies and regulations are now in the works to surpass the original goal—bringing the region closer to 90% carbon-free electricity by 2030—and energy efficiency remains the driving force. And while maybe not as headline-driven as companies like SolarCity, Tesla, Nest, other Bay Area-type companies, or General Electric, a steady cadre of Northwest energy efficiency and energy solution providers have weathered the considerable ups and downs of the hard-to-predict energy market.
In the Carbon Free Prosperity report, the successful recruitment and presence of leading companies such as Vestas (North American Headquarters), Iberdrola, SolarWorld, Solaicx, XsunX, Sanyo, and other big names across the clean energy sector were touted. But it remains the case that events and policy matter. Following the national trend, a lack of certainty around key national incentives (and rapid cost declines in solar PV in particular), many of these companies face a highly challenging marketplace, with operations in the Pacific Northwest reigned back considerably in the past 5 years, including several that never fully got off the ground. This was also the case for companies down south, in Silicon Valley, and across the country.
In the Northwest, it is often said that if you shake a tree, an energy efficiency expert falls out. The region is home to several leading national companies such as CLEAResult, Ecova, and more (often formed through the acquisition of local firms such as PECI, Fluid Market Strategies, Quantec, and others). Many of these companies, in addition to some smaller, residential weatherization-focused counterparts, experienced similar boom and bust as their electricity-generation counterparts following the American Recovery & Reinvestment Act, which provided depending somewhere between $20 and $40 billion for energy efficiency. What remains today is a highly experienced network of negawatt providers, supplanted by a regional emphasis on energy efficiency and regional entities such as the Bonneville Power Administration and the NPCC. These two powerhouses essentially enshrine energy efficiency as the leading source of new energy procurement. Both should enable the long-term success of the Pacific Northwest’s energy service companies, as well as the possibility of greater than 78% of Oregon and Washington’s power coming from carbon-free sources.