In Oregon, Signs of the Clean Energy Future

By / 5.17.2010

A fascinating experiment is unfolding in the nation’s Northwest, where a candidate for governor of Oregon is campaigning against politics itself. In a recent visit to Washington, D.C., John Kitzhaber, a medical doctor by training who served two terms as governor of Oregon from 1995 to 2003, discussed his approach to his third campaign. Wearing a blazer, his trademark sunrise tie and boots, Kitzhaber described his desire to run a wonky campaign that would be mostly about policy — especially clean energy, the subject of PPI’s E3 Initiative.

“I’m in a position in my life where I don’t need to do this,” the 63-year old Kitzhaber said. “I’m not running a typical slash-and-burn campaign.” Kitzhaber has followed through so far, in a few short months churning out some thoughtful policy papers on job creation, energy and health care.

Of particular interest is his focus on energy. In Oregon — a state that already places a great emphasis on clean energy — Kitzhaber said he sees an opportunity to “recreate the political center.” Oregon has been leading on mining “negawatts” for over three decades. As Kitzhaber’s energy plan notes, “The economic and environmental returns on these investments have been even greater: ‘new’ energy supplies from efficiency savings cost one-half to one-third that of new power plants, emit no carbon or other pollution, and don’t jeopardize fish runs. Energy efficiency has been the single largest new resource for the region since 1980.”

Oregon’s existing targets are already ambitious: 25 percent renewables by 2025, and reducing greenhouse gases to 10 percent below 1990 levels by 2020 and 75 percent below 1990 levels by 2050. However, Oregon currently lacks a comprehensive strategic plan for all these goals.

At the D.C. meeting, Kitzhaber observed that Oregon spends $12 billion a year on energy, but 85 percent leaves the state. As governor, he promised to begin with large-scale energy retrofits, including public buildings, where he thought 25 percent of energy could be quickly reduced, freeing up capital and creating good jobs in the process. “We need to view a KWh saved just the same we view one created,” he said.

This approach would put Kitzhaber squarely in line with the Obama administration, which in a series of largely unheralded victories, has used stimulus funds to turn the ocean liner of America’s domestic energy practices toward a sunnier horizon.

Whether or not Kitzhaber wins, it seems clear that there’s a trend here among certain states to push the green envelope. In Massachusetts, Governor Deval Patrick and Secretary of Energy and Environment Ian Bowles have paved the way in pushing an integrated, regional approach to clean energy and demonstrating clear results, as PPI recently highlighted with an event in Boston with local economic leaders.

In these partisan times, and with the recently released Kerry-Lieberman bill, these are all promising signs that clean energy really can be about policy, not politics.