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West Coast Winds of Change

Two recent West Coast talks about Harvest the Wind took me to two remarkably livable cities: Seattle and Portland. 

In Seattle, I knew I had a committed group of listeners at Town Hall Seattle.  After all, they chose to come to Town Hall's downstairs auditorium to hear about wind energy when they could have headed upstairs to hear Naomi Wolf reflect on her new book, Vagina: A New Biography.  Some competition! 

Many of the people attending my talk were old enough to remember Earth Day 1970 and the advent of renewable energy as a national policy priority during President Jimmy Carter's presidency.  This nexus was heightened by my good fortune in having one of America's environmental heroes, Denis Hayes, introduce my talk.  As national coordinator of the first Earth Day, Denis generated unprecedented public focus on America's legacy of environmental neglect through hundreds of gatherings at college campuses and other public venues across the nation.  That day was a turning point in my own life, sobering in exposing the magnitude of environmental challenges facing us and hopeful in revealing a new level of awareness that seemed to be sweeping the nation.

Denis now heads the Bullitt Foundation, a Seattle-based philanthropy focused on making the Pacific Northwest a global model of sustainability.  One striking reflection of the foundation's goals is the new Bullitt Center, a six-story office building that uses a large, overhanging solar roof to generate electricity equivalent to the building's overall power needs, ground-source (geothermal) heating, and sufficient rainwater collection and recycling to provide for all of the building's water uses.

The Bullitt Center is located in the heart of the city, readily accessible by foot, bike, and public transportation.  As Denis showed me the digesters for the water-free toilets and the control systems for the solar and geothermal systems, his justified pride in this remarkable building shone through.   The Center is slated for completion in 2013.

To view my Town Hall Seattle talk, together with Denis's very generous introduction, click here.

In Portland, I gave a lunch talk to employees at the North American headquarters of Vestas, a Danish company that remains the world's leading wind turbine manufacturer amidst mounting global competition.  There the average age of listeners must have been about half that of my Seattle audience, making my observations about wind power's turbulent early years a lesson in almost-ancient history.  

After my talk, Vestas Communications Professional Sarah Bills gave me a tour of their just-opened building - another impressive example of sustainable urban office space.  Renovating an abandoned department store warehouse in the newly-chic Pearl district, Vestas has turned a conventional commercial holdover into a state-of-the-art structure that incorporates operable windows, water-cooled ventilation, and rainwater collection for toilets and rooftop garden irrigation.  The building's water use is about 80 percent below conventional norms.  And then there are 112 kilowatts of photovoltaic panels, neatly framing a rooftop lunch room, patio, and garden.  Far be it from Vestas to think that wind power is the only worthy renewable energy resource!

Walking back to my hotel after the Vestas talk and building tour, I crossed generous, green-painted bikelanes and waited briefly for a sleek, well-appointed streetcar  to glide gently by.  Though most of Portland's streetcars were built in the Czech Republic, the system's more recent purchases are American-built by United Streetcar LLC, a subsidiary of Oregon Iron Works in Clackamas.  Federal stimulus funding and state incentives helped make this new American enterprise a reality.

I went to Seattle and Portland to inspire people about wind power's great potential in making America more energy self-reliant and sustainable.  I came away inspired by what smart planners, policymakers, and designers are doing to make two important American cities more livable, workable, and environmentally benign.