While big projects move ahead, caution is given that while some fortunes will be made, there will also be crashes

By ELAINE SHEIN
East Oregonian Publishing Co.

PORTLAND – From sandals to cowboy boots, colorful shirts to business suits, a crowd of more than 600 people late last month at the eighth annual Harvesting Clean Energy conference in Portland all had a common purpose.

Barry Bushue, Oregon Farm Bureau president, noted he saw among the attendees “everything from Birkenstocks to cowboy boots” but added “maybe that’s a very, very good thing to be able to be collaborative, to be working on these issues we face regarding energy and trying to find new sources … so we can all benefit from them.”

Bushue pointed to different things that have happened in technology in Oregon, and said, “we’re on the cutting edge of things we never thought possible.” He added that “whether to refer to it as renewable, clean or green, energy and energy policy is taking on things that weren’t even conceived of 50 years ago.”

USDA Undersecretary for Rural Development Tom Dorr, in his keynote speech, said renewable energy is a terrific opportunity.

“Renewable energy is, in fact, going mainstream. This is not some sidebar opportunity that people are looking at with some gleam in their eye. This is, without doubt in my mind, the greatest new opportunity for wealth creation in rural America in our lifetimes, and I would even suspect in the lifetime of my father. We are in the early stages of a very large transition,” Dorr said Jan. 29.

On the same day, big announcements were being made for renewable energy.

The U.S. Department of Energy announced it had included Pacific Ethanol in a matching award totaling $24.32 million to build the first cellulosic ethanol demonstration plant in the Northwest. The plant will produce ethanol from wheat straw, wood chips and corn stover and will be co-located at the site of Pacific Ethanol’s existing corn-based ethanol facility in Boardman.

On the solar side, Sandra Walden, a developer with Commercial Solar Ventures in Portland, said her company just closed financing for an 870-kilowatt roof-mounted solar system in Portland. It will be the largest such project north of Los Angeles, and construction will be completed in October.

David Chen, chair of the Oregon Innovation Council and founder of Equilibrium Capital Group, said it’s an incredibly exciting time for renewable energies such as solar, wind, biofuel, geothermal and others, and there is a lot of money going toward building clean energy infrastructure. He said now is the time for farmers to get involved in sessions at conferences, talk to universities and experts, and influence politicians.

“There’s a sense out there it’s a gold rush,” he said. “The caution I would have is this is a marathon, don’t get caught up in a gold rush.”

Chen said farmland is being seen as oil fields, as people rush to invest in renewable energy.

“We’re going to see crashes, we’re going to see and fortunes made” in the next, 10, 20 or 20 years, he said. He added people should talk about land use, and get more money to smaller projects being done by individual farmers and rural communities.

People also need to look at how society depends on transportation for moving commodities and products, and whether that’s cost effective; whether feedstocks should be used as fuel stocks, and the role of incentives.

Chen said it is essential to have the tax credits to help renewable energy projects; without them, he said it will be a hard time to keep the renewable energy industry afloat.

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