Outside ideas: Northwest Institute for Community Energy

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By JP Kemmick

Not long ago, green jobs were just an idea spurred on by a few green pioneers, frontiersman Van Jones among them. But the buzz has slowly built around green jobs over the past year, and Washington State has taken the lead on defining and supporting this new segment of the economy with the recent passage of the Green Jobs and Climate Action bill.

The bill put our state in a unique situation, in terms of progress not only at the legislative level, but also at the grassroots. In essence, we leapfrogged over a few steps most green jobs advocates have needed to take in their respective states -- steps like finding city-size funding and small allocations for pilot projects. And although we still have a long way to go on the green jobs front in Washington, most states will continue to struggle longer at the grassroots level before they can expect to see sweeping legislative action.

Case in point, our neighbors to the south: Oregon failed to pass any climate legislation this past session and has yet to fund any green jobs programs in a meaningful way. But the grassroots are alive and well.

To see for myself what a grassroots movement for green jobs might look like, I went to visit some friends in Portland. These four twenty-somethings (Lacey Riddle, Nathan Jones, Jesse Hough, and Pat Mannhard) are running the Northwest Institute for Community Energy (NICE) program out of a neighborhood center’s basement. The NICE was one of three recipients of a $10,000 grant from Project Slingshot, a joint project of Focus the Nation and Clif Bar.

The NICE was originally conceived of as a “think and do” tank, aimed at observing and lending a hand to the Sunnyside Neighborhood Energy Project (SunNe). The founders of SunNe envisioned a community-owned solar thermal project that would bring low-carbon space heating and cooling and domestic hot water to a mixed residential/commercial neighborhood.

The young NICE team had planned to use their summer experience at SunNe to generate a green jobs creation booklet, to serve as a blueprint for grassroots community energy projects across the country. Their hope was to put this book in the hands of students, who could then use their skills to start programs similar to NICE in their college towns (as Riddle put it, “as opposed to being just stranded on your college campus and feeling ineffective.”).

Unfortunately, grassroots efforts often face a lengthy struggle. Portland’s Office of Sustainable Development decided against awarding a grant that the SunNe project had counted on to fund implementation. With no summer project to observe, the NICE team redirected their energies into getting SunNe off the ground.

“We’ve got to show there’s community support,” Riddle said. The team has been canvassing the neighborhood, knocking on doors and distributing information to the community as they go. In addition, they’re working on a community survey that will strengthen the next attempt at a grant proposal. They're also planning an August 1 block party to help get the word out and raise support.

Ultimately, the NICE still served their original purpose of infusing a grassroots effort with new energy and manpower, and their outreach and management has drummed up a crowd of community members, organizers and local teachers willing to take the reins at the end of the summer (the group was encouraged by a recent Oregonian headline stating that green jobs legislation may be on the horizon). Before moving on, the team will put together a report for SunNe so that its supporters will be better equipped to apply for grants to help make the energy project a reality. And the NICE team hopes to continue working in the future with dedicated community members already invested in local projects.

I was inspired to see the focus on colleges and universities as breeding grounds for new green jobs programs, and to witness a program that directly empowers students to seek out and take on new green jobs, on and off their campuses. I think that the NICE model would be a terrific learning and change-making opportunity for a group of energetic students in Seattle, particularly given the state government's endorsement of green jobs, and access to great local resources like the Neighborhood Matching Fund.

JP Kemmick is a 23-year-old activist working for the Sierra Club's Cascade Chapter. He is also a co-founder of the Cascade Climate Network. If you're interested in his updates on local happenings, you can reach him at jpkemmick [at] gmail [dot] com.

Photo credit: flickr/clango, licensed by Creative Commons.