The Southwest Washington’s path to creating jobs in the renewable energy sector will be built on a series of thoughtful decisions it should start making now, according to Dick Sheehy, an expert in choosing sites for renewable energy facilities.
Sheehy spoke on Wednesday to more than 60 attendees of an event held by the Columbia River Economic Development Council at the Heathman Lodge in Vancouver.
The region must acknowledge the decline of oil and gas as cheap sources of energy, model successful government incentive programs and sell itself to solar and wind manufacturers in a targeted way.
Sheehy, director of advance planning in the Portland office of the global engineering and construction firm CH2M Hill, said the world economy will demand renewables as supplies of oil and gas are overtaken by demand, and as the price of both fossil fuels rises.
“We are on the downward curve as far as hydrocarbons,” Sheehy said. “We will run out of hydrocarbons.”
Unless we want to go back to a “wood and steam economy,” Sheehy said, we need to encourage manufacturers of solar and wind power to expand by providing successful incentives. Governments in Oregon, Ontario, Canada, and Germany have done this for years.
“You’ve got to be real specific and targeted,” Sheehy added. “You don’t want to market Vancouver and Clark County to everybody.”
Sheehy said Vancouver, Clark County and the Pacific Northwest as a whole all have strong selling points to lure renewable energy companies to the region, including:
• The availability of land.
• Cheap electricity.
• Clusters of high-tech companies, including semiconductor manufacturers that have the capacity to support a local renewable energy sector.
Sheehy said the Pacific Northwest should pay particular attention to an electronic component that is growing in importance as a semiconductor light source: the light-emitting diode, or LED. Calling LEDs a “$7 billion market,” Sheehy said the devices will increasingly be used in TVs and in lamps, especially as traditional incandescent bulbs are replaced because of renewable energy regulations and incentives.
“This is going to be a big industry,” he said of LEDs. “It’s another technology that fits in the Northwest.”
However, Sheehy said, it will take time for the market to come around to the point when solar and wind power become feasible to both produce and use for our power needs on a large scale. Different parts of the U.S. will react differently as the prices for solar and wind power become more attractive in the years ahead, Sheehy said.
Sheehy said “grid parity,” where the cost of renewable energy, such as solar and wind, will reach equilibrium with the cost of fossil fuels, won’t become a reality in Washington and Oregon until 2024. But local governments and economic development agencies can “fill that gap with incentives to make it financially feasible today,” Sheehy said.
And it makes sense to do that when you consider that a future of oil and gas depletion demands it, he said. Sheehy pointed to China as an example of a place that is eating up fossil fuels but also trying to invest heavily in renewable energy.
China “builds a coal plant every two weeks,” Sheehy said, but “they’re also installing solar. They’re really trying to get out in front of the technology.”