Not even two years removed from the first bits of an idea taking shape, the Tenino Innovation and Education through Renewables project received national recognition this month in the form of the Visionary of the Year Award presented by the Smart Electric Power Alliance.
The joint effort by Portland Energy Conservation Inc. — the organization listed by SEPA as winning the award in a June 12 press release — Tenino School District, the City of Tenino and other agencies have designs on modernizing the local energy grid through the use of solar panels, lithium-ion battery storage and other methods of generating clean power.
Tenino City Council member Dave Watterson will attend the 2019 SEPA Grid Evolution Summit next month in Washington D.C. to represent the city at the awards ceremony. Watterson connected Tanya Barham of PECI in early 2018 after she approached state officials with the idea of partnering with communities in Washington for smart grid projects to advance innovation in the energy sector. She is the one who first suggested the grid modernization project that later became TIER.
A total of seven Power Player Awards are given out by SEPA, a nonprofit working to eliminate carbon emissions in the United States by 2050. Other award categories include Public Power Utility of the Year, Change Agent of the Year and Innovative Partner of the Year.
“The name of the game for us is to find these folks who want to collaborate, be innovative and try new things,” said Tenino Mayor Wayne Fournier. Projects like this that are scalable can be tested out and be less expensive in a smaller areas where there can be more control over variables and more of a proving ground for concepts. We’re trying to do things that are different and to our strength, and this has certainly been a good example of that.”
Solar panels installed in 2017 at Tenino High School sparked the local conversation about energy modernization that ultimately helped fuel the creation of TIER. Students will be able to access components of TIER as it grows to gain hands-on knowledge of the systems for not only course credit but future job training. Centralia College, Washington State University and Puget Sound Energy have joined local stakeholders such as TransAlta in ongoing conversations about the future of TIER.
The Tenino-based entry beat out other finalists Pepco Holdings of Washington D.C. and the Illinois Commerce Commission for the Visionary of the Year award. Watterson, who could not be reached for comment prior to press time, said earlier this month that one of the goals he had when TIER was first formed was to show that more than just urban cities could have an impact as global markets begins to rely more on renewable energy sources.
A panel of judges made up of previous Power Player winners evaluate candidate submissions from its more than 1,200 members to come up with three finalists for each award. The panel then goes over the finalists in more detail to select the winners. Video presentations about each winning project will be given next month at the conference and disseminated online.
“It’s not really about the size of the project for us, but more about how unique it is, how replicable it is and how innovative it is,” said Jordan Nachbar, communications manager for SEPA. “I think the way the judges viewed this program was that it was strong in all three categories and it came with such firm support from the local community at all levels. I think that’s a core tenant of what we all want as part of the broader energy transition that’s going on.”
With an estimated price tag of about $10 million, TIER has and will continue to rely on grant funding and other avenues to finance the vision of Barham, Watterson and others. Watterson has said that he expects large infusions of capital in the near future. National recognition and the platform that comes with it will only help those fundraising efforts.
“There’s the potential that having this award in hand could be leveraged to find more funding for the project,” Fournier said. “It further validates the concept, for sure.”