Washington State Is Power Player in Clean Energy Development

From wind energy, hydropower and solar development to smart grids, clean fuels and energy efficiency, Washington state is at the center of clean energy technology innovation.

Nan Bauroth
On Monday, December 9, 2013 - 16:26

Washington state is so far out on the clean energy technology curve that Redmond-based Planetary Power is generating the juice for NASA's simulation of life on Mars.

"Their operation is on the big island of Hawaii and off-grid, and we're providing all the power for that project," says Joe Landon, CEO of Planetary Power.

The Seattle-based company develops solar and hybrid energy solutions for off-grid and remote operations, tapping such markets as oil and gas exploration, telecommunications and mining where its hybrid generators use less fuel, run longer and are cheaper to operate. The company also sees markets for its products in remote and emerging areas, as well as natural disaster relief.

Inventive clean energy technology is an established but growing industry in Washington, where more than 100 companies are focused on such endeavors as energy efficiency, renewable energy, pollution control and energy research. This rapid growth makes the nascent industry a jobs powerhouse that employs 90,000 workers. 

Washington is at the center of the intersection where energy and technology collide, and the synergies taking place there are helping to reduce dependence on fossil fuels and improve the environment. The state has signaled its commitment to clean energy by mandating that by 2020 15 percent of its electricity must come from new energy sources, including wind, tidal, biomass, biofuel and solar.

The state's commitment to alternative power sources, green-oriented research facilities and indigenous tech talent pool have converged to create a growing and diverse industry.

"Three to five years ago clean technology meant wind turbines and solar," says J. Thomas Ranken, president and CEO of the Washington Clean Technology Alliance, an industry trade association. "Today that definition is broader, encompassing anything having to do with the utility of energy."

A cluster of innovation is emerging in the state around storage and batteries. A storage unit the size of a container gives utilities an option to the capital costs of constructing a new generation plant to handle peak loads.

"Storage is really important for alternative energy," Ranken says. "If you have access to stored energy, alternative sources of power become much more economically feasible."

Premier Research Labs

Clean energy enterprise has a distinct advantage in the state thanks to prominent research centers at the University of Washington, Washington State University and Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL), operated for the Department of Energy's Office of Science.

Building efficiency and biofuels are also major and growing centers of clean energy innovation in the state. The University of Washington and Washington State University independently have attracted $40 million in grants related to the development of biofuels, Ranken says.  

PNNL, whose main campus is in Richland, employs 4,500, with an annual budget approaching $1 billion.

As a top-performing lab in the national laboratory complex, PNNL is a catalyst in turning federally funded clean energy investments into breakthrough programs and technologies delivered to the market, says Kevin Kautzky, PNNL energy and environment communications manager.

One example is PNNL's power grid efficiency technology, known as transactive control. Deployed at the heart of the five-state, 60,000-customer Pacific Northwest Smart Grid Demonstration Project, the technology is making the region's power system smarter and greener by monitoring the flow of electricity through the power system and calculating the cost to deliver power at different places. It has been licensed to Calico Energy Services of Bellevue.

Other success stories include the licensing to Archer Daniels Midlands of a process to make bio-based propylene glycol, while Mulkiteo-based UniEnergy has licensed PNNL's advanced battery chemistry technology to provide greater stability to the energy grid. 

Weather Science Forecasting

The growth of alternative energy sources spawned Seattle-based 3Tier, which since 1999 has been helping wind and solar energy companies and other businesses manage the risk of weather-driven variability.

"We forecast energy production for utility scale wind and solar plants anywhere from five minutes ahead to 40 years ahead," says 3Tier CEO Craig Husa.

The company's supercomputer cluster that runs global weather and complex modeling for clients on six continents is located at 3Tier headquarters in Seattle.

Robust Incentives

Washington backs clean energy development through meaningful incentives to encourage investment, including business and occupation tax reductions for manufacturers of solar energy systems, components or semiconductor materials; sales and tax exemptions for semiconductor gases and chemical purchases; and sales and tax credits for equipment that generates electricity using renewable energy.

"As the world becomes more able to take advantage of its renewable energy sources, we are a critical piece of that, and we help enable the world to better leverage its renewable energy sources," 3Tier's Husa says. "It's exciting for us, and exciting for the world, so we see a great future here."


A graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism, Nan Bauroth started her career as Director of Advertising and Promotion for Doubleday Publishing.