Last summer, Daryl and Kevin Maas, owners of Skagit-based Farm Power Northwest, contacted our office with the idea to work with some of Whatcom County’s dairy farms to develop an energy-producing manure digester. We put together a meeting of local folks who could facilitate the project, and today the company is in conversation with several parties intrigued by the multiple benefits of such an endeavor.
Renewable energy is a hot topic these days, and in the last several months the Northwest Economic Council – Whatcom County (formerly the Bellingham Whatcom Economic Development Council) has been approached not only by Farm Power Northwest, but also by wind and solar power developers, looking to establish a presence in our county. A sense of urgency combined with innovative, entrepreneurial thinking has generated a flurry of activity in the renewable energy sector, and the Economic Council has been pleased to support these businesses in efforts that could benefit the community in many ways.
For the Maas brothers, who currently have a manure digester under construction in Mount Vernon, a big part of the work is to garner the trust of farmers and educate local government and the business community on the advantages of building such a thing in their backyard, so to speak.
“Once you’ve had a chance to talk to people and they understand what this will do, they’re receptive,” says Daryl Maas.
What one manure digester will do, in fact, in addition to generating enough power for about 500 homes and having an environmental impact equivalent to removing 1,500 cars from the road, is help eliminate bad odors, improve water quality and help sustain agriculture and the jobs it supports.
“We tailor production to what’s locally there,” says Maas. “We have an agricultural background, so it’s important to us to get more value out of what farmers are already doing and help keep farming viable.”
Another group looking to capture an existing resource and generate power for the county is Convivium Renewable Energy. Company Principal Terry Meyer has plans to place a half-dozen or so meteorological towers around the county to measure wind production and use the data to produce a high-resolution wind map that estimates the wind resource for the entire area.
Meyer says the data will give smaller producers enough confidence to proceed with their projects without doing a wind study of their own and others with larger projects enough to initiate their own research. A wind map that indicates a viable resource could promote residential, community or even utility scale wind energy production. The Economic Council is working with Convivium to determine which local entity should host the project and to put Meyer in touch with other individuals and groups already looking at wind power. Several, including the port, the city, Lummi Nation and others, have renewable energy projects in the works, and collaboration could serve all parties.
“A lot of these projects are about connecting with the right people,” says Meyer. “We’re looking for existing interest so we can save money by working together.”
When a British Columbia-based solar-energy company recently called our office and said they were interested in opening a solar-panel manufacturing facility here, we invited them down to meet with officials from our cities and county, Public Utility District, the Port of Bellingham, Puget Sound Energy and others to discuss the possibilities. The company, which builds solar panels and operates solar farms, primarily in Canada and Europe, is looking to expand into the U.S. market. We’re working with them now to find a suitable location, mindful of the company’s capacity to generate local jobs in a growing industry.
Of course a big piece of the puzzle for all these companies is finding partners that will help finance their ambitious projects. As we work closely with each to identify the best options and make those important contacts, we’ve encountered a great deal of local enthusiasm for this sort of innovation.
Meyer, who came to the Economic Council by way of our recent alternative financing seminar, says that grants and partnerships will be key to securing funds. Farm Power Northwest is looking at registering a public offering with the state and selling shares in their projects.
“The first time out, you have to raise money from millionaires,” Maas says. “But we think there are a lot of local people who would like to be involved.”
Maas, who spoke of his company’s efforts to secure funding at the alternative financing seminar, says that in many ways Whatcom County is ideal for renewable energy projects like theirs, because we have a population that supports such efforts and the natural resources needed to make them work. This rings true to us and never more so than when the Northwest Economic Council – Whatcom County conference room is filled with professionals working together to make projects like these happen in our community.