Senator Ron Wyden’s visit to Sisters Country on Tuesday, October 9, centered on two themes the long-time Oregon legislator hopes to see advanced: clean energy and forest restoration. After a briefing in Bend on the 27,000-acre Pole Creek Fire, Wyden headed out to Sisters for a barbecue in a hangar at Sisters Airport and a tour of ENERGYneering Solutions, Inc. (ESI). In his post-lunch remarks, Wyden noted that the behavior of the Pole Creek Fire demonstrates that “there are clear benefits to large landscape restoration projects.” As has been the case consistently in Sisters Country’s long and storied experience with wildfire, blazes are extreme in areas where there is a high density of dead-and-down timber and “lie down” in areas that have been treated through thinning, mowing and underburning projects. Such projects are capable of producing energy through biomass, using slash from thinning projects to generate heat in biomass boilers, such as the one installed at Sisters High School through a project initiated by Benny and Julie Benson of ESI. City Manager Eileen Stein noted that the Pole Creek Fire, in addition to being a smoky nightmare for the community, was a waste of energy that could have come from the use of forest restoration byproducts. “That’s biomass that could be used for energy that’s just going up in smoke,” she said. The linkage between clean energy innovation, the marketplace and government policy was the overarching theme of Senator Wyden’s remarks. He hailed ESI as an example of a small, innovative company that is working toward the future. “This is a company that is on the right side of history,” he said. ESI President Benny Benson noted that the company naturally evolved from engineering into construction and operations of power plants using renewable energy. They have taken on projects across the U.S. and internationally in South Korea and Mexico. ESI employs more than 30 engineers and mechanics in its headquarters at Sisters Airport. “From our little niche in Sisters, a lot has happened and it’s happened fast,” Benson said.
Wyden argues that federal support of renewable energy is good public policy, but it must be done wisely. He alluded to the disastrous failed federal investment in the solar energy company Solyndra, which defaulted on a $500 million federal loan when it went into bankruptcy. “Post-Solyndra, I think people have come to the conclusion that we need to redo this system of loans and grants,” Wyden said. He cited the Shepherd’s Flat wind project as the kind of project that is worthy of targeted support through tax incentives, in large part because the marketplace is driving the project. “This is sort of a textbook example of how to do it,” he said. “They’ve already got their market in place, selling into California.” ESI mechanical engineer Brad Jeffers raised the issue of transmission. “Upgrading transmission is going to be the key,” Wyden acknowledged. “The question is, who is going to pay for it?” Benson floated the possibility of enhancing capacity through locally generated and distributed power. ESI is planning to do its part in that regard. If the airport is annexed to the city and moves smoothly through the local land-use process, he plans to deploy biomass to power the facility. “This will be the first bio-mass-powered airport that we know of nationally,” Benson said. After the discussion, Wyden chatted with ESI engineers and took in several displays of their work, a glimpse of the future being created now out of a small private airport in Sisters.