Tenino Works with Portland-Based Nonprofit to Create Renewable Energy Economy ‘Living Lab’


The city of Tenino, Tenino School District and a Portland-based nonprofit are spearheading a more than $10 million project that would turn the school district into a regional hub for training in renewable energy technology.

The project is called “Tenino Innovation and Education through Renewables,” or TIER. Essentially, it would turn Tenino into a “living lab” and show how a small town could move to a renewable energy economy through power grid modernization.

“It’s kind of a cool transition when you talk about transitioning from fossil fuels to renewable energy — that this area was a huge part of the fossil fuel industry, and we’re able to take that, and support that transition, and be an example of how that can be done successfully,” said Tenino City Council member Dave Waterson.

The TIER Advisory Committee includes representatives from the Tenino School District, the city of Tenino, South Sound Solar, Bonneville Environmental Foundation (BEF) and PECI. The team behind the project has also included Centralia College and Washington State University.

“The simple explanation (of TIER) is we have emerging technologies that are technologies of the future,” said Tenino School District Superintendent Joe Belmonte. “We want our kids to have access to them and we want to make sure that those kids have opportunities that are hands on. If we have solar rays, and alternative energy, and microgrids and all of those kinds of things here that kids can access … it’s not abstract — it’s hands on.”

In September 2017, Tenino School District installed solar panels on its high school. Waterson, Belmonte and President of South Sound Solar Kirk Haffner put a grant application together for TransAlta and matched the grant with another from the Washington State Department of Commerce. 

“When we installed the solar (system) in the school, one of my things was I wanted students to be aware of it besides just seeing it there,” Waterson said. “I wanted them to be able to see how much power it’s putting out — just to start being aware of other forms of energy, and how it works and what it means. That was kind of just a basic, ‘Let’s put this on the school and make students aware of it’ and we built on that.”

Waterson said this is how the TIER project originated. After the solar panel project, Tanya Barham, director of operations & product development at PECI, reached out to Waterson and Belmonte. PECI is a Portland-based nonprofit that, according to its website, aims to build resilient community energy systems.

“We support local efforts by applying resources, planning and technical expertise because we believe strongly that local control of energy systems will strengthen local economies, make local systems more resilient and have lasting benefits for the environment,” the nonprofit’s biography reads.

Barham said Thursday that the group currently has about $70,000 of cash funding, and another $200,000 worth of in-kind donated labor, planning and expertise. Barham estimated the entire TIER project will cost more than $10 million.

“Because it’s such a good lab, the idea is that we can drive down, we can create best practices and disseminate those so that no other community — they don’t need to spend $10 million,” Barham said. “They will benefit from this investment.”

Tenino School District hosted a presentation Thursday to unveil the project to regional stakeholders. The purpose of the presentation was to announce the project and garner support, Belmonte said. Barham said the TIER project will most likely begin at the end of 2019 and various phases of the project will continue throughout 2022. 

The next step for the TIER project is to secure funding. However, Barham said the first piece of the project people in Tenino would notice — dependent on grant funding — would be 150kW of solar in a field to the left of the substation.

“They would put a large grid-scale lithium-ion battery in the substation and they would begin updating the overhead line from the substation to the high school, in order to create resilient back-up power in case of an emergency,” Barham said. “They (Tenino residents) would start seeing that. They would see some requests for labor, or requests for bids from the utility in order to perform that work.”