In case you’re interested, we’re publishing a string of op-eds in regional newspapers on the Cascadia Scorecard 2005. Two have now run; three are pending publication (in Bend, Boise, and Eugene); and three more are still being considered (in Tacoma, Vancouver, and Victoria).

You can find the two already published pieces in the Oregonian(coauthored with David Yaden) and the Spokane Spokesman-Review (subscription required). The text of the Spokesman Review op-ed, which ran on Tuesday, follows.

  • Less than two years ago, Spokane’s own Michael Devlyn Poulin set out to illustrate the profound vulnerability of the Northwest energy system. He did it with a wrench, unscrewing bolts from about 20 transmission towers across the West. Mr. Poulin was no terrorist. He didn’t remove many bolts-no towers fell-and he was a bumbling novice in the arts of subterfuge. In fact, he described himself to the press as “62 years old, overweight, arthritic, diabetic, half-blind and a cancer patient.” Still, he successfully executed his plot for weeks before authorities finally apprehended him.

    If someone like Mr. Poulin can monkey-wrench the energy distribution system so freely, the alarming truth is that a group of determined attackers with backhoes or military explosives could cripple it for weeks. Greater Spokane, like the rest of the Cascadia region, relies on a surprisingly scanty energy-distribution infrastructure. Two major pipelines bring in the petroleum products. Two more bring in the natural gas. And electricity travels on a handful of major transmission lines.

    Energy companies and public authorities have not been idle about protecting critical energy infrastructure, but unfortunately, conventional security approaches alone are not up to the job. Gates and guards cannot affordably defend a network of pipes and wires that spans thousands of miles of remote countryside.

    Fortunately, the weaknesses of the region’s energy distribution system also present staggering opportunities: a clean-energy revolution that is already gathering force in the Northwest offers ways to tighten security not at a cost but at a profit. A “smart grid,” quickly rising efficiency, clean cars, and local renewable fuels can help bombproof our energy system while generating thousands of jobs. They can do so by making our energy system not impregnable but resilient.

    Already, scores of Northwest institutions and companies are leading the way. The Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland, Washington, for example, is developing “smart-grid” electronic tools that will allow millions of electricity-using and -generating devices to adjust their operation to real-time grid conditions. If attackers were to disable a transmission line, smart-grid appliances would switch into power-save mode and decentralized energy sources such as co-generators in factories would feed power into the grid. A smart grid would largely heal itself.

    New technologies also offer to wring dramatically more service from each unit of energy, allowing us to make do with less if the worst should happen. Cost-effective energy savings are widespread throughout the economy, from lighting to irrigation. In fact, the pace of technical development has kept energy efficiency in the position of being the least expensive and most abundant new “source” of energy available for the past quarter century.

    But capturing this efficiency potential requires investment capital and technical know-how, two assets that are concentrated in large institutions such as utilities. Those utilities, for all that they do to promote efficiency already, are ultimately conflicted about its success. Utilities that help their customers save energy too effectively also diminish their own sales. The solution to this conflict is a regulatory innovation called “decoupling”: disconnecting utilities’ profits from their energy sales by tweaking the rate formulas approved by state regulators.

    A similar example is clean cars-the more-advanced vehicles that Washington will get if it passes legislation now pending in Olympia. With fuel use trimmed by up to 30 percent, clean cars and trucks become a highly decentralized strategic petroleum reserve, their fuel tanks holding many days’ of supply because of the vehicles’ expanded range. And by adopting “clean-car standards,” Washington would accelerate the auto industry’s design of ultra-fuel-efficient vehicles that could reduce the state’s dependence on petroleum even more.

    Renewable fuels such as biodiesel (think: used French-fryer grease and vegetable-oil crops) and cellulose ethanol (think: wheat straw) can further the Northwest’s energy independence. The Canadian biotech firm Iogen hopes to open a 50-million-gallon-a-year ethanol refinery in Idaho, pumping as much as $30 million a year into the farm economy by purchasing straw.

    The smart grid, efficiency, clean cars, and biofuels are paradigm cases of how, in energy, clean equals secure-and profitable. But such changes won’t appear magically. They will require leadership and the embrace of innovative new incentives such as decoupling and clean-car standards, as detailed in Cascadia Scorecard 2005, Sightline Institute (formerly Northwest Environment Watch)’s annual report on seven trends critical to the Northwest.

    The payoff, however, is enormous: we northwesterners keep home more of the $10 billion a year we currently export to pay for oil and gas. And we get an energy system less vulnerable to monkey wrenches and backhoes.