A growing number of wind-energy companies are establishing themselves in downtown Portland, drawn by a rapidly expanding market for renewable power, a skilled labor pool and the city’s green welcome mat.
The influx of wind-energy investment and white-collar professionals is realizing the burgeoning hopes of state economic leaders who see alternative energy development as a new leg of a state economy in transition. Many firms boast international connections, ample financial resources and a nose for opportunity.
Portland isn’t the only U.S. gathering place for wind-energy developers. Austin and Houston – Texas boasts more wind power than any other state – are hubs for the industry, and Chicago’s an up-and-comer, according to those in the wind-energy industry.
Still, these observers said, Portland, increasingly, can credibly lay claim to a top spot.
The largest and oldest of the Portland wind-firm crowd is PPM Energy, which got its start at electric utility PacifiCorp and is now owned by Spain’s energy powerhouse, Iberdrola. Other, newer entrants include India’s Suzlon Wind Energy Corp., Britain’s Renewable Energy Systems (RES) and Denmark’s Vestas Wind Systems.
“Portland’s become a bit of a hub for wind energy in the United States,” said Michelle Montague, a spokeswoman for Suzlon. “It’s the smart place to be.”
Montague keeps a list of the wind-energy-related companies in Portland, including wind-farm developers, turbine makers and consultants. The unofficial tally exceeds 30, with, Montague estimated, about a half-dozen setting up shop in the past six months to a year.
Many companies employ just a handful of people in Portland. Suzlon, RES and French-owned Horizon Wind Energy, for example, maintain their North American headquarters in other U.S. cities and small satellite offices here. But their presence speaks to the city’s ability to attract an industry that is fast-growing, high-tech and well-paying.
The trend has its seeds in the 1980s, when an initial round of wind development began in the West. It stalled amid flawed technologies and governmental policies, then ramped up again in the Northwest in the early 1990s with the Stateline wind project along the banks of the Columbia River in eastern Washington and Oregon.
But this new surge in Portland, just a couple of years old and building, may be unprecedented, fueled by national and local policies accommodating to renewable energy development, consumer demand and the windy resources of the Columbia River Gorge.
The companies, along with others involved in renewable energy, are “creating a cadre of like-minded people,” said Joseph Cortright, a Portland-based economist and consultant.
The wind entrepreneurs are involved in everything from marketing turbines to developing projects to providing consulting and legal services. They’re linked by a common focus on renewable sources of energy and together promise considerable economic clout. Yet questions about high costs and market demand abound.
“The economic impact? It’s too soon to tell,” Cortright said.
Commercial real estate brokers have noted the trend.
“They’ve started to be the new faces around town,” said Sean Turley, a broker with Norris, Beggs & Simpson.
Chicago-headquartered Invenergy is about to become the newest kid on the block. It’s poised to sign a lease for a couple of thousand square feet of downtown office space, said Michael Logsdon, Invenergy’s director of business development.
“We should be moved in by the end of July,” he said.
Invenergy chose Portland for its Northwest office for a variety of reasons, Logsdon said. Two of the region’s largest electric utilities, PacifiCorp and Portland General Electric, are in Portland, as is federal energy marketer Bonneville Power Administration, which plays a key role in delivering the electricity from windy rural locations in the Columbia River Gorge to urban centers such as Portland and Seattle.
Invenergy has targeted the gorge for future wind farms, including one in Oregon’s Gilliam and Morrow counties.
Portland’s “environmentally friendly culture” was another plus, Logsdon said.
Other wind-farm developers cite similar reasons. RES came to Portland in 2001 as projects in the gorge began to ramp up. The company is about to move into bigger digs in the historical United Carriage Building on Southwest Pine Street.
“We want to take advantage of the increased opportunity” for projects in the Gorge, said Scott Piscitello, vice president of development for RES.
The company, with U.S. headquarters in Austin, Texas, has developed two wind farms in Washington state. It’s considering additional projects in the region, Piscitello said.
The United States is experiencing a wind-farm boom, in part because rising energy prices have made the renewable commodity more affordable. Federal tax credits make the projects even more enticing for developers.
In addition, individual states, such as Oregon, Washington and California have passed laws that require utilities to rely more heavily on alternative sources of power, such as wind and solar.
These government policies aren’t lost on companies in Asia and Europe, where wind energy is far more common. The international set sees the United States as a place with huge potential, and it’s eagerly moving in, often by buying up their American counterparts.
Iberdrola bought Glasgow, Scotland-based ScottishPower earlier this year in large part because it wanted subsidiary PPM Energy, one of the largest wind-farm developers in the United States.
PPM Energy is considered the granddaddy of Portland’s wind-energy community, although it’s just six years old. Spun off from PacifiCorp in 2001, it occupied about 16,000 square feet of office space in the Lloyd Center district and employed 12 people.
It now takes up more than 55,000 square feet in the Pearl District’s Brewery Blocks and boasts a work force of 500.
Don Furman, a senior vice president with PPM, said the city’s skilled labor pool is another big draw.
“We’ve always been an energy town,” he said.
The collapse of Kenetech Windpower in the mid-1990s and Enron in 2001 left an excess of talent that the new entrants are now scooping up, he said.
Furman sees good times ahead for the industry.
“This will be a growth business for a long time,” he said. “Portland, more than any other city, is in the center of the wind business right now.”
By Gail Kinsey Hill
15 July 2007
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