From Green Timber to Green Fuels

A clean-energy revolution promises not just to renew big cities; clean energy is having a big impact on small-town American as well. Grays Harbor, a small hamlet on the coast of Washington State, was a dying timber town twenty years ago. Built on the abundant riches of the massive timber on the Olympic Peninsula, it enjoyed a century of harvesting, sawing, processing, and shipping lumber all over the world. For six generations of families, choker setters had gone into the woods, green chain pullers had gone into the mills, and small business owners had cashed their paychecks. It was a happy community of 41,000 souls living in the yearly hundred inches of rain that watered the forest canopy on which they depended.

Then a small, feathered bomb hit the town, in the form of the spotted owl. Rulings by the federal courts designed to protect the endangered creature forced timber companies to abandon the forests that were its critical habitats. This radically reduced timber harvests at the same time that the market was opening to global competition for raw logs and milled forest products. In a matter of years, the timber supply dried up, the mill workers were laid off, and the longshoremen who loaded ships bound across the world sat waiting for the call to join a dockside crew. The call never came.

These are proud and hardworking people: the Swedes of Hoquiam, the Scots of Aberdeen, and the Slavic community in Cosmopolis. They had built a place where work and family were enough. The town had a rough optimism and brawling temper not far removed from the timber camps. Labor was king and work was hard, but the trees would always be there. When the economic heart was ripped from this one-industry community, the visible disintegration of small businesses being shuttered and mills rusting away was bad enough. Far worse was the invisible pain of families whose breadwinner sat idle.

Because Grays Harbor is literally at the end of the road, well away from other employment centers, folks had nowhere to turn. The few tourists who missed the road to the best clam-digging beaches farther south were not much help.

Like many communities suffering from economic dislocation, Grays Harbor began to cast about for ways to bring back the jobs that had been so productive for generations. They tried the conventional routes, attempting to lure light manufacturing and call centers to the area, to little effect. They even tried a plan to make Grays Harbor a historic seaport, filled with sailing ships, museums, and tourists with disposable dollars. It fit the area's sailing tradition and excited the community, but the tourists never came.

Then, serendipitously, the town discovered another renewable resource: biofuels. More accurately, biodiesel discovered Grays Harbor.

It began one day in 2005 when Gary Nelson, director of the Grays Harbor Port District, got a call from John Plaza, founder and president of a company called Imperium Renewables, which makes biodiesel. Plaza had carefully researched potential locations for a huge expansion of his refinery operations and needed a spot with both rail and seaborne access. He had a vision for a plant that could use feed stocks from midwestern soybeans and oil crops around the world while the market for local crops like mustard seed from nearby farmers developed. The demands of the emerging biodiesel market warranted building a plant that could ride out shortages and price spikes in any oil market, and port transportation was key.

The courtship between the community and the company was brief but exciting. Financing was successful, and by November 2006, construction had begun on a 100-million-gallon-per-year plant that will make Grays Harbor the center of the largest biodiesel refinery in North America. With the imposing physical presence of an oil refinery but none of its toxic emissions, it will boast nine two-million-gallon tanks.

Soon, the several hundred well-paid construction workers building this $60 million plant will be replaced by sixty-five to seventy-five refinery workers with steady, well-paid work displacing fossil fuels. Since manufacturing jobs of this quality spin off 7.5 indirect jobs each, this plant will generate about 500 new jobs, many in Grays Harbor. Hundreds of railway workers will deliver thousands of rail cars a year of midwestern soy oil, and scores of tug operators will barge biodiesel to Seattle. That's a lot of jobs in a small town, and the difference between a functioning community and a dot on a map.

Imperium values the skills of workers from the local paper industry, people who are used to processes akin to refining biodiesel. The men and women who brewed up pulp for paper will soon brew biofuels. The company now receives twenty to thirty résumés a week from people drawn by the promise of a local future. Port commissioner Gary Nelson says, "These guys have done it right. They have diversified their operations in feed stock and in their market. I'm impressed with them, and when you are as eager as we are for growth, you make sure things are for real before signing up. We aren't out of the woods yet, because we lost 2,000 jobs in the last five years and we're still not back to even. But we are real hopeful around here now."13 In a town like Grays Harbor, hope is a precious commodity.

Despite the good news, the transformation cost at least one man his job. Any transition causes dislocation, but in this case the victim was a state representative who spoke poorly of the biodiesel plan and was promptly thrown out of office by his angry constituents. Voters do not like a naysayer, particularly one giving short shrift to economic recovery and the potential of clean energy.

In Grays Harbor, Washington, Imperium Renewables is tapping demand for renewable energy to bring jobs and hope back to a hard-hit mill town.

John Plaza looks at renewable energy as rising above partisan politics. "Biodiesel is a red-blue uniter," he says. "It can unite the country and head us in a new direction in energy. I believe it has the capacity to change the world eventually. Sure, we can't grow our entire supply of fuels using soy-based biodiesel. But we should use what we have, and it's turning this community around economically."14 In the future, Plaza envisions an even more cutting-edge source of energy: algae, which he believes could produce 650 gallons of biofuel per acre. "When that happens, we can seriously obtain energy independence using just .2 percent of our land mass," he says. His efforts are both building the necessary infrastructure bridge to higher forms of biofuels and reviving the fortunes of a hungry town. "I'm happy with that," he says. He should be.

Grays Harbor is not a one-trick pony, however, when it comes to green industrial development. The biodiesel plant has attracted three other green industries: Grays Harbor Paper produces 100 percent recycled paper; Sierra Pacific burns "hog fuel," the sawdust from the mill; and the Pane Trek Company is building green paneling. Furthermore, these companies have discovered cogeneration; Grays Harbor Paper and Sierra Pacific are burning biofuel to produce both heat for their operations and electricity that is fed back into the grid. This doubles the efficiency of their power operations.

Together, Imperium and those green companies now form the core of the future for Grays Harbor's economy. The sudden concentration of green industry—unimaginable in an area where spotted-owl stew was featured on many restaurant menus in the 1990s—may represent a pattern to be duplicated across small-town America. Green has come to mean jobs—not job destruction—for Grays Harbor.

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