The majority of energy produced is polluting, non-renewable, and damaging to ecosystems. Large, highly centralized power utilities are inefficient, suffering significant power losses during power generation, transformation, distribution, and consumption. Transportation systems currently rely almost entirely on fossil fuels, which will need to be phased out to stabilize the climate.
Thirty-eight turbines at the Vansycle Ridge Wind Farm in northeastern Oregon transform wind currents into electricity.
Currently, energy sources that are both renewable and non-harmful to fish and wildlife account for only 3% of electricity produced in the Pacific Northwest. Burning coal, natural gas and other fossil fuels causes global climate change and degrades air quality. Nuclear energy generates intractable radioactive wastes and relies on destructive mining practices. While hydropower dams do produce renewable energy, almost all dams of any size have devastating effects on salmon and other fish and wildlife which need natural, free-flowing rivers to sustain themselves.
It is cheaper to generate negawatts — avoided energy demand through Resource Efficiency — than to provide new power sources. Even without Renewable Energy which reflect the environmental costs of energy production, investments in energy efficient motors, lights, buildings, vehicles, etc. offer rapid paybacks. Many utilities promote energy efficiency through technical assistance and financial incentives.
Thoroughly exploiting efficiency strategies can lead to a reduction of energy use by a factor of two to four or more. The remaining demand can be met with a portfolio of energy sources that are renewable, non-polluting, and compatible with the health of ecosystems. Such sources include wind, solar, small-scale hydro, biomass, and geothermal. Together, such renewable sources provide the energy driving Materials Cycles.
With suitable monitoring, these sources can be Product Labeling and marketed at a modest premium under such names as "green power" and "salmon-friendly power". As the utility industry is restructured state by state, it is becoming possible for these benign electrons to be produced in one region and sold in another using contractual agreements. As pressure grows to Climate Services, taxes on carbon emissions are likely to drive rapid adoption of renewable energy.
The Pacific Northwest has seen a vast expansion of wind power capacity in the last two years. Advances in wind turbine technology, falling costs, and unstable fossil fuel prices have combined to make wind-generated electricity an increasingly viable alternative to conventional energy resources. Wind turbines can co-exist gracefully with Agriculture and wildlife, although special precautions must be made to avoid killing birds.
Enough sunlight hits the United States in one day to power the entire country for a year. The sunny climates of Idaho, Montana, eastern Oregon, and eastern Washington are ideally suited to producing solar electricity. The efficiencies of photovoltaic cells and solar thermal systems continue to increase slowly, with rapid cost decreases. Photovoltaic cells can be integrated with roof tiles or advanced window glazings, allowing buildings to produce more energy than they consume. Currently photovoltaic cells rely on toxic and scarce materials, are difficult to recycle, and take large amounts of energy to produce. These defects are being addressed with the current generation of cells.
Small-scale hydropower, unlike that produced by the massive dams on the Columbia River and throughout the West, is compatible with the needs of salmon and other species. It cleanly and efficiently converts the power of flowing water into electricity without blocking a river. Advanced, high-efficiency turbines and reliable control systems mean that even a small stream can now be used to generate electricity.
Biomass, including agricultural and forestry residues and the organic component of municipal and industrial wastes, can be burned to produce both heat and electricity. As long as the biomass crop is grown sustainably, any carbon dioxide releases from combustion will be matched by the carbon sequestration of growing crops. Dedicated biomass crops are relatively low-value, but biomass residues can provide an important opportunity for using Waste as Resource.
Geothermal power plants capture steam from hot underground brine fields to spin turbines that in turn generate electricity. Advances in design are making geothermal wells more efficient and less expensive to build. However, geothermal systems may have a finite life-span, and there are indications of broader impacts on groundwater and wildlife. They will likely play only a marginal role in the renewable energy portfolio of this bioregion.
Hydrogen provides a viable transportation fuel alternative to fossil fuels, and a viable energy storage device complementing the electrical grid. Renewable energy sources can be used to generate liquid or gaseous hydrogen. When recombined with oxygen in a fuel cell — a chemical reaction device similar to a battery — electricity and heat are generated in precisely controlled amounts. The only reaction by-product is water vapor. Billions of dollars are now being invested in fuel cells, with Ballard Fuel Systems in Vancouver, Canada the world's leading manufacturer. Fuel cells remain expensive, but their price is dropping exponentially, and several major auto-makers have pledged to have fuel cell powered automobiles on the market within two to four years.
Decentralized renewable energy technologies like photovoltaics can be combined with decentralized energy storage devices like fuel cells to allow Human-Scale Neighborhoods and Green Building to be largely energy self-sufficient.
Generate energy using renewable sources, including wind, solar, small-scale hydro, biomass, and geothermal. Use fuel cells as energy storage devices to complement the electrical grid, and hydrogen to run the fuel cells.