Washington Must Move Fast
by Jonathan Hiskes
What's it going to take for Washington's clean tech sector to finally take off?
For starters, a wake-up call that other states are leaving Washington in the dust, according to a new report from the Clean Energy Leadership Council, a sort of blue-ribbon panel commissioned by the state legislature two years ago to address this question.
Then the state needs a targeted plan that builds on local strengths; far more exports to larger markets (hello China); and - even during the budget doom-and-gloomery in Olympia - at least $20 million to prove the state is serious in pursuing the clean-energy businesses that are in vogue everywhere.
We'll unpack all that below, but first the report's top-line finding: Washington is underperforming, despite its tech expertise, software successes, private wealth and green leanings. It ranks just 14th in the nation in clean-energy jobs and barely above the national average, according to a Pew Charitable Trusts report.
And other states are spending much more to nurture home-grown businesses: California spends more than $150 million each year for energy research, pilot programs and commercializing new technologies. Massachusetts and Iowa each put about $25 million a year toward those goals. Oregon offers at least $250 million a year in tax credits for clean-energy projects.
"While Washington has a national reputation for sustainability its efforts to grow clean energy companies and jobs is significantly behind other states that have made job growth in clean energy a top priority," says the report, which was prepared by Navigant Consulting.
It's key to make that point clear to legislators who believe their state is already plenty green, says Marc Cummings, policy director of the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and a co-chair of the energy council.
"There's a lot of enthusiasm here - nobody's opposed to this," he said in an interview. "But everybody's going after this sector now. Other states have made big investments, and in Washington we have a patchwork of policies that we turn on and off. It's a fragmented approach."
To fix that, the council (a collection of business leaders, financers, utility executives and state officials) makes four major proposals. Cummings expects a statehouse bill that reflects most of them to appear in the coming weeks.
The key is to focus on innovation that can be sold elsewhere, since the local market isn't big enough to support a robust sector, says Cummings.
"We have to be not competing with China on price but developing products and services for markets that are growing," he says. "Our strength is innovation, not bidding wars for relocating established companies."
"This is really one of the first post-crash economic development plans," says Cummings. "So rather than just throwing out big incentives and big mandates, it's a high-leverage strategy."
Anything that requires a lot of new state money is probably a non-starter in this budget session, but Cummings said existing energy incentives could be redirected but didn't identify specific ones.
Another idea for finding that money is modeled after a California fee:
One of the more promising long‐term funding sources would be a so‐called "system benefit charge." This mechanism is a minor fee for each kilowatt hour of retail electricity supplied in the State of Washington. A charge of less than 20 cents a month for the average home would collect that $20 million, the report says.
Having a couple of people with "Governor's Energy Office" on their card is also a benefit when working with companies because they feel that they are working with someone that has the Governor's ear and the authority to work across agencies to get things done
(A similar proposal in Oregon would unite a string of agencies in a Oregon Energy Commission to make it easier for clean energy projects to get approved.)
"Everything's challenging in the budget environment we're in," said Cummings. "But there's clearly an appetite for growing this sector. I think we've done everything we can to minimize the cost and create the highest leverage possible."
learn more on topics covered in the film
see the video
read the script
learn the songs