Commentary: Encouraging Investments

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Washington broke ground on the Grand Coulee Dam in 1935, paving the way for the state’s industrial boom across aerospace, agriculture, timber, retail and more. Eighty years later, the dam is now the nation’s largest hydroelectric facility, generating 21 billion kilowatt-hours annually — five times the output of the Hoover Dam.

Businesses and residents across the state benefit directly from the Grand Coulee Dam’s output through some of the lowest electricity rates in the nation. Those low rates, however, come at a price. Inexpensive electricity makes it difficult to justify energy infrastructure investments. 

In 2013, the Washington Legislature passed a $40 million Clean Energy Fund to accelerate economic and employment growth while also addressing the state’s aging infrastructure. The question on everyone’s mind is: Is it working? Cutting-edge Washington companies, supported by some of our largest utilities, are answering that question.  

Puget Sound Energy and Avista Utilities are doing demonstration projects, thanks to the Clean Energy Fund. Avista is conducting a smart-grid project with a battery developed by Mukilteo-based UniEnergy Technologies. The battery will be deployed in Pullman at Schweitzer Engineering Laboratory to help Avista utilize wind, solar and other intermittent renewable energy technologies and improve grid reliability. The UniEnergy Technologies battery will collect and store energy from wind and solar when it is abundant and distribute that energy when needed. 

The Clean Energy Fund grant offsets some costs for this project, making it a feasible demonstration for everyone involved, including Avista’s ratepayers. Impact from that investment will be long-lasting: Avista will soon have a proven energy storage model; UniEnergy Technologies will have a successful reference project to help drive sales for years to come. 

Snohomish Public Utility District (SnoPUD) is also creating impact with a $7.3 million Clean Energy Fund grant. SnoPUD is the first to incorporate Modular Energy Storage Architecture (MESA), a nonproprietary standard that will allow utilities to scale battery storage capacity easily. Seattle-based 1Energy Systems is helping create the MESA software controls, and the University of Washington and Pacific Northwest National Laboratory are providing research and analytical support. UniEnergy Technologies is also involved in the demonstration.

On January 15, Governor Inslee dedicated the first MESA energy storage system at SnoPUD’s Everett substation — the largest smart-grid demonstration project in the country. All eyes are on our state, and global companies are contacting our utilities, energy technology vendors and research facilities to discuss partnerships. 

Washington ranks eighth in the nation for energy efficiency. That’s a great statistic, and something to be proud of at the national level. But our West Coast neighbors are ranked third (Oregon) and second (California). Companies today demand energy-efficient workspaces to meet corporate sustainability needs. 

The Clean Energy Fund’s energy revolving loans are working to level the playing field. They provided a $15 million seed for Craft3 and the Puget Sound Cooperative Credit Union to drive $60 million in commercial and $100 million in residential loans. More than 750 projects are now underway, spanning building energy retrofits, solar installations, anaerobic digesters and more. Each project improves our energy efficiency rankings while fueling jobs and taxable revenue for communities across the state.

The Clean Energy Fund is strengthening Washington’s economy, and the Legislature is considering an extension. If it passes, $60 million will be set aside to extend the energy revolving loan fund, utility grants and matching research funds. Additional credit enhancements for advanced solar and renewable energy manufacturing may also be added to drive further innovation and job creation across the state.

Eighty years after the Grand Coulee Dam groundbreaking, there is no question about the project’s transformative impact. The Clean Energy Fund could be the catalyst for emerging energy technologies and projects of equal magnitude. 

J. Thomas Ranken is president and CEO of the CleanTech Alliance, a trade association of more than 300 Washington organizations. Reach him at 206.903.3444 or tom@cleantechalliancewa.org

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