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Whatcom County slowly moving toward energy, food independence

Puget Sound Energy doesn't supply electricity to Laura Plaut's six-acre farm on Lummi Island.

No matter. She installed a solar power system and started generating it herself.

It's not a lot - "You better like French press coffees because there's no way the coffee pot's going to be supported," she says - but it's a step toward sustainability and energy self-sufficiency. Wind power is her next step.

She foresees a future of oil shortages, rising food prices and empty shelves at major grocery stores. When that happens, "I'd rather be a place people can come to, rather than a person looking for a place to go," said Plaut, a four-year Whatcom County resident who runs the Common Threads Farm along Sunny Hill Lane.

This is not just a hippie thing. Government and business leaders here and around the world are looking toward weaning the country off its reliance on oil. That means some Whatcom County residents are looking to generate their own power as well as their own food.

Dwindling oil means the era of cheap and abundant food is ending, food policy expert and University of California, Berkeley professor Michael Pollan in October wrote to President-elect Obama in The New York Times Magazine. It will no long make financial sense to catch salmon in Alaska, ship them to China to be filleted and then sent back to California to be eaten, he wrote.

To some degree, what he's calling for has been done before. Eleanor Roosevelt during World War II launched the Victory Garden movement where residents would plant home gardens to help feed the nation. By the end of the war, 20 million home gardens were producing 40 percent of the produce consumed in the country, Pollan wrote.

Today change is slow. Talk about biofuel increased, especially over the summer, and a lot of people are tinkering around, but interest has declined recently along with gas prices, said Clayton Burrows, director of state nonprofit group Growing Washington. The group operates two farms in Whatcom County and its operations center is in Everson.

Relatively cheap power from hydroelectric dams in the Pacific Northwest means less incentive to implement alternative energy sources, Burrows said.

"There is the reality that we have a very strong energy system in place, and until we can come up with an alternative that works, people aren't going to change," he said. "There's the fantasy of being completely energy independent, and then there's the realities of efficiencies and costs of essentially creating a new infrastructure."

A GREEN COUNTY

Local leaders are worried about a future without oil. Earlier this year, the Bellingham City Council and Whatcom County Council created a task force to develop recommendations for how we can address dwindling oil supplies. It was done around the time gas in Bellingham reached $4.50 a gallon, the highest it's ever been, driving the public conversation.

Some people laughed at local leaders. But they represent residents who already lead in producing and using green energy, according to Puget Sound Energy.

"There isn't any part of our area that is either producing or using more green energy than Whatcom County," said Andy Wappler of PSE, which has 1.1 million customers in 11 counties, mostly in Western Washington.

In all, about 1 in 3,226 PSE customers generate solar, wind or micro-hydroelectric power for themselves and, when they have extra electricity, for the PSE grid, he said.

In Whatcom County, 1 in 1,878 customers do so, the vast majority using solar power. And that doesn't include operations like Plaut's that aren't connected to PSE's grid.

The federal government recently increased tax breaks for solar power installation. Wappler said people turn to renewable energy for two reasons: They like the idea of energy independence, and they like the environmental benefits.

"People in Whatcom County say they are environmentally minded," he said, "and they prove it in terms of signing up for green power or putting up renewables."

In October, Whatcom County leaders passed new development rules that make it easier to install major wind turbines in unincorporated areas. County Council member Barbara Brenner, a vocal backer of the new rules, said they'll help encourage people to generate their own environmentally friendly energy.

Some local business people are making a living off of increased interest elsewhere. Paul Davis, president of Everson-based Sweet Home Biofuel, has had more inquiries about small biofuel refining units, thought interest has dipped since gas prices have dropped to roughly $1.80 a gallon.

Davis, who travels and lectures on biofuels, sells units all over the country and world. A home unit that processes 100 gallons in 10-12 hours costs about $7,000. He recently sold one to Skagit Valley Casino Resort so it could reuse cooking oil.

"The interest has grown a lot," he said. "It's a tremendous improvement."

TRANSFORMING A FARM

For people who want to become energy and food independent, the road can be difficult.

In northern Whatcom County, Chad Squires wants to install solar panels, a wind tunnel, additional greenhouses and biodiesel-refining equipment on his five-acre farm. He also wants to upgrade to commercial standards a kitchen, and to hire developmentally disabled youths to pick and sell corn.

It will be a major task for Squires, a Mount Vernon High School business teacher who doesn't consider himself a farmer, involving navigating U.S. Department of Agriculture grant application requirements, he said. He recently learned the USDA wants pre-applications for grants by Jan. 15, pushed forward from the previous March 1 application deadline, and he doesn't think he'll make it.

But he's determined to transform the farm at 3156 E. Badger Road.

"Now we have a sense of urgency. Now have a president that wants to put dollars into this. Now we have a county that's really promoting green jobs and green energy," Squires said. "People are kind of tired of putting money into oil company's profits."

For him, it's about benefitting future generations.

"After I'm long gone - dead and buried - maybe it's improved other people's lives, and they'll carry on the tradition of living a more sustainable lifestyle."

Reach Jared Paben at 715-2289 or jared.paben@bellinghamherald.com.

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