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Meet 4 young leaders changing Northwest environmentalism

Can this year's NW Energy Coalition honorees save the planet? Credit: Credit: NW Energy Coalition

Call them the advance guard in our evolving clean energy revolution. One plays Captain Kilowatt on his home turf in Idaho. Another heads Washington’s largest community energy efficiency program. A third skirted a career in nuclear energy to become an energy efficiency advisor at Washington’s largest utility. The fourth uses affordable, clean energy to tackle joblessness and environmental and social justice issues.

Meet Ben Otto with the Idaho Conservation League, Tara Anderson with Sustainable Works, Gus Takala with Puget Sound Energy and Jessica Finn Coven of Climate Solutions. These NW Energy Coalition’s “4 Under Forty” award winners were honored recently at a Bullitt Center ceremony.

The NW Energy Coalition has been promoting clean energy policy with regional utilities, regulators and policymakers for 30-plus years. The “4 Under Forty” awards are meant to inspire others to take up the clean, affordable energy mantle. This year’s honorees represent a new environmental movement, one that incorporates conservation, climate and utility activism, and sustainable jobs for sustainable communities. For these young leaders, the clean energy future is now.

Tara Anderson, Director, Sustainable Works

For Tara Anderson, energy efficiency is the blue plate special with renewables — wind, solar, geothermal — as the tangy low-carb desert. Efficiency is the fastest route to a clean energy future. “It’s the most affordable energy force we have,” she says. Seal a drafty home — 34 percent of all energy leaks through unweatherized floors, walls and ceilings — and you’ve saved an awful lot of power. Seal those leaks with locally trained workers and you’ve created jobs, and sustainable communities.

When federal recovery act funds flowed to Sustainable Works (SW) in the retrofit ramp up of 2009, the organization trained hundreds of locals for quality, living wage jobs. When federal funds dried up, state and foundation money followed, allowing SW-trained workers to carry on and retrofit more than 3,000 homes. “There’s a lot of chatter about the need to deliver cost effective energy efficiency,” says Anderson. “But how we define ‘cost effective’ is very important. If it comes at the expense of labor to deliver those services, then we won’t be able to maintain the quality people needed to do the high volume of work required to make a real dent in the marketplace.”

Anderson calls herself a steward of the triple bottom line: “By which I mean environmental equity and economics as it applies to quality jobs.” Addressing daunting problems such as climate change and inequality, says Anderson, takes concerted effort. “You can’t fix one without addressing the others.” (SW also helps homeowners and renters secure low cost loans and utility rebates. Its Save Energy Today program offers a $1400 retrofit for just $150.)

Jessica Finn Coven, State Director, Climate Solutions

Climate Solutions, a research and advocacy organization, has been at the forefront of Northwest climate change policy. As its director for the past six years, so has Jessica Finn Coven. According to her bio — she doesn’t toot her own horn very loudly — Finn Coven has been on the leading edge of nearly every clean and affordable energy cause in Washington State: from helping workers craft an agreement to shut down Centralia’s TransAlta coal plant to collaborating with the Washington BlueGreen Alliance in support of lower carbon fuels and smarter climate policy.

She acknowledges few legislative gains this year but finds cause for optimism in Governor Jay Inslee’s insistence that “climate change is a top priority.” His executive order of April set up a Carbon Emission Reduction Task Force to study various climate change-related actions, such as requiring the state Department of Commerce to deploy new renewables and improve the energy performance of public and private buildings

She also finds room for hope in British Columbia’s carbon tax, the most significant such tax in the Western hemisphere. Since its passage, gasoline use in British Columbia has plummeted. If Olympia legislators with a grasp of climate change take notice, it’s the way to go. Finally, California successfully defended its clean fuel economy standards against a fossil fuel industry attack; the Washington state senate hosted California leaders to learn more about their tactics.

Finn Coven is even more inspired by the way citizens across the state and region are “demanding, not asking” for alternatives to fossil fuels. “We’re seeing a movement like we’ve never seen before,” she says. “All different folks coming together and saying absolutely not, no expansion of the fossil fuel industry here.” They know we can do better, she says. Based on outcomes from some “Northwest coal fights”, Finn Coven thinks so too.

Three years ago the market for coal was hot, stoked by an insatiable demand from China. Investors were eager to build export terminals to satisfy Asian demand. Today, coal prices have slumped, exports have shrunk, proposals for coal terminals at three Pacific Northwest locations have been abandoned, and industry analysts say the surviving plans for three more terminals look precarious.

Finn Coven, who got her start as a global warming campaigner for Greenpeace, says people are saying no to all things coal for one simple reason: They don’t want to fossil fuels in their future. To achieve that goal means doing battle with an industry that is rich and savvy and “willing to put money into politics and fight us.” The best response, she adds, is to build a movement and keep building it.

Ben Otto, Energy Advisor, Idaho Conservation League

Head east to sunny Idaho and you might find Ben Otto in his Captain Kilowatt outfit. His Idaho Conservation League has a 40-year record of wilderness protection and conservation. The League helped Idaho become one of the first states in the nation to ban coal production. If it meant Otto donning a Captain Kilowatt costume and heading to Costco to promote simple efficiency measures, so be it. “You have to believe that these little bits you’re doing are setting you up for the bigger bits down the road,” he says.

In his five years with the Idaho Conservation League Otto has led the fight against an attack by Idaho Power, the state’s main utility, on net metering. He has advocated to keep the utility’s residential and irrigation demand response programs alive. And he helped start the budding Idaho Clean Energy Association. When 200 solar installations sprang up, Idaho Power tried to shut them down, insisting the home installations would bring down the grid. The Idaho Conservation League teamed up with the state’s Public Utilities Commission, and lobbied state regulators to keep solar intact.

You’re not going to convince Idaho to flat out adopt clean energy mandates, says Otto, despite the state’s abundance of sun and wind. Instead, you talk about things that resonate in Idaho. “We framed the [solar] debate in terms of independence and market solutions,” says Otto, explaining that net metering requires utilities to buy back the electricity generated by home solar systems.

Given the buy back  perk, it wasn’t hard to convince ordinary people to install solar, says Otto. Net metering money stays in the homeowner’s pocket; coal money goes out of state. “Keep the money at home” is a clean energy slogan that resonates in Idaho.

Gus Takala, Energy Manager, Puget Sound Energy

Gus Takala grew up in New Mexico in view of Los Alamos National Labs and the persistent shadow of nuclear waste. It left a big impression. He considered a career in nuclear. But after graduating from college, he turned down a job changing out nuclear fuel on aircraft carriers and submarines at the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard. He might have taken it, says Takala, “if submarines were used for more than mutually assured destruction.” Instead, he went off to grad school to study sustainable design.

In 2007, with a masters in mechanical engineering from the UW, he joined Puget Sound Energy as an energy manager engineer for commercial and industrial customers. His primary job is to help customers evaluate — and adopt — more energy efficient options. Take an apartment building owner who wants to replace an old natural gas boiler. “I might encourage them to put in a high efficiency condensing type boiler,” says Takala. Condensing boilers are water heaters that use waste heat to pre-heat the cold water. Manufacturers claim the boilers operate at up to 98 percent efficiency, compared to the 70-to-80 percent efficiency of a conventional boiler design.

LED lighting is another good example. “LED allows you to dim while also saving a lot of energy,” says Takala. “In addition, you don’t have as much of a disposal problem [as you do] with CFL’s, or the mercury issue.”

Takala works hard to raise awareness of PSE’s efficiency programs and to convince customers to join the clean energy revolution. The utility’s private sector partners — McKinstry or MacDonald Miller or smaller outfits like Reedwright Heating and Electric — will often get a job then turn to PSE for advice about how to do it more efficiently. “We help them get buy-in for clean energy and efficiency,” says Takala, by helping them “make the financials work in their favor.”

The question is not whether these four under-40 enviro stars are making a difference. The question is whether their efforts to hasten the clean energy revolution can happen in time to save the planet.

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