NOTE: This is an archived blog post. Comments are closed.
For more recent information, please visit the front page of this site.

Portland/Vancouver as hub?

I'm realizing more with each day that the Portland/Vancouver metro area has the potential to emerge as a regional, if not national, alternative energy hub. All the key ingredients are here; from an energy economy standpoint, Portland and Vancouver complement each other nicely.

I'm not a member of the Portland/Vancouver Booster Club, nor do I have anything directly to gain by talking up my city. I've just been piecing some things together that I want to share.

I recently moved back to Vancouver, a bedroom community just north of Portland, after living fifteen years elsewhere (Seattle and Minneapolis, mostly). Vancouver makes its money as a port city, high-tech center, and labor/housing provider for area businesses. What drew me back (in addition to my extended family) was the absence of state income tax, presence of affordable (for the region) housing, on-the-cusp urban renewal, abundant outdoor recreation, and proximity to Powell's Books in Portland... or, more accurately, to all that Powell's Books represents about Portland.

Portland is a progressive city of readers, bicyclists, roller derby fans, skeptics, car-haters, weirdos, hipster alt-conformists, ex-loggers, beer snobs, extreme endurance athletes, econuts, and, perhaps most importantly, a lot of extremely talented engineers. I know because I am friends with some of them.

I know people locally at Intel, Hewlett-Packard, and Tektronix, just three major names with long engineering and fabrication histories in the Portland/Vancouver area. Many newer arrivals fill out the ranks: TriQuint in Hillsboro with its broad RF offerings, Microchip in Gresham with its industry-leading embedded microcontrollers, Sharp America in Camas with its innovative LED technologies. The list goes on.

The products of these companies are the raw building blocks out of which the new smart grid will be built. The people who understand them, both from technical and cultural perspectives, live here.

Portland has a unique culture of eco-awareness and liberal generosity. For many Portlanders, the Big Dream is not to make a billion dollars--it's to "make a difference" while maintaining a healthy work-life balance and a modest income. And perhaps more than anywhere else I have lived, the entrepreneurial culture in Portland is very much in touch with its "garage startup" roots. Take Nike for example, started by Willamette Valley local Phil Knight. According to the Seattle Times, "Knight's first shoes, sold out of the trunk of his car, had soles made on [Coach Bill] Bowerman's waffle iron."

Portland's NedSpace is feeding Portland's change-the-world-on-a-shoestring culture by providing inexpensive workspace and VC networking opportunities to early-stage innovators. NedSpace's focus on international social entrepreneurship and giving back to the community resonates deeply with the Portland ethos.

Because of its larger size (2,159,720 people), the Portland metro area provides a more diverse and flexible work force than smaller metro areas emerging as cleantech innovation centers like, say, Austin (1,652,602 people), Boulder (280,440 people), or Spokane (456,175 people). (Population data from Wikipedia). It also boasts better air, ground, river, and ocean transport connectivity.

Many cleantech companies have begun to take advantage of all this. Some examples:

  • "The largest solar fab in the Americas" is being developed in the Portland suburb of Hillsboro, Oregon by SolarWorld. Administrative headquarters is in Vancouver, Washington.
  • Iberdrola Renewables, based in Portland, is the the north american arm of Spain's Iberdrola S.A., "the largest renewable energy operator in the world." (quoted from Wikipedia)
  • Bonneville Power Administration, the largest producer and distributor of electric power in the Pacific Northwest, is based in Portland. Its transmission business and major switching/intertie station is in Vancouver, Washington. BPA distributes power from 31 hydroelectric dams, numerous wind farms, and forecasts the highest rate of interconnected wind generation capacity (30%) of any US balancing authority. BPA will be forced to pioneer leading-edge techniques in grid stabilization and intermittent renewable power integration. In addition, BPA power keeps Southern California from blacking out in the summer by sending power south over one of the nation's few high-voltage DC transmission lines, the Pacific DC Intertie.
  • With large contracts from both Siemens and Vestas, the Port of Vancouver is one of the leading importation ports for the massive wind turbines being deployed across the Western US. The Port boasts the two largest heavy-lift mobile harbor cranes in North America, the perfect tools for efficiently transloading turbine cargo from ocean-going vessels to trucks and train cars for distribution to wind farms, many of which are being built in eastern Washington and Oregon. Vancouver is the junction of major Pacific shipping routes, major rail lines, and major trucking routes, giving it a distinct geographic advantage in serving as a deployment hub for wind energy infrastructure.
  • Oregon Governor Ted Kulongoski has managed to establish Portland as the first city to receive electric cars from Nissan, and is working with utility PGE to build a network of charging stations throughout the region. Portland has the highest per-capita rate of hybrid car ownership in the United States.
With so much going on under our noses (but mostly off our daily radar), it's easy to see how Portland/Vancouver could stealthily emerge as the nation's leading R&D hub for smart grid building blocks, affordable wind power, advanced power transmission, electric vehicle deployment, and solar panel manufacturing.


You've got some good points. Those cities are already ahead of the curve, purely based on culture and attitudes. People there seem to be ready to embrace alt. energy projects and start-ups more readily than almost anywhere in the US.

Living in Pittsburgh, I believe this city is not far behind in terms of engineering capabilities and potential. We are held back by a couple factors: politics and culture. There are exciting politicians here that are behind alt energy and green projects, but the stronghold that the coal industry has in this region cannot be ignored.

Secondly, the cultural movement to smart urban living is years behind Portland and Vancouver, but we are moving in the right direction. I hope we are nearing a tipping point there. Any chance you ever have to visit here, look me up and I will show you what's going on here. NY Times just wrote a couple articles about us. One was about how we have the most "green" square footage in the country.

Great article. Your description of Portland as progressive, skeptic, beer snob, weirdos ... is right on and very funny. I just might use that line (giving a nod to your blog, of course).

There are also two wave energy demo projects going now and plans for a wave farm near Gardiner.

"Along Oregon's 460 kilometers of open coastline, waves average 1.5 meters high during the summer months and 3.5 meters during the winter. This makes Oregon an ideal location for wave power."

If wave farm(s) are built, the majority of the power would go to Portland and her burbs.

As promised, I quoted you here. enjoy.

Leave a comment