Tenino Solar

When the Tenino Innovation and Education through Renewables (TIER) project took shape in March 2018, Tenino City Council member Dave Watterson had the goal of proving small communities like his could have an impact on global efforts related to renewable energy production.

The collaborative effort by the city of Tenino, the Tenino School District, Portland Energy Conservation Inc. and others is designed to modernize local energy infrastructure in Tenino using solar panels, lithium-ion batteries for power storage and the creation of a micro energy grid. Local students would be able to use TIER for hands-on instruction as it adds a more efficient, cost-effective and environmentally friendly component to the power grid.

Last month, the Smart Electric Power Alliance, a national nonprofit focused on eliminating carbon emissions by 2050, named TIER one of three finalists for its Visionary of the Year Award. Pepco Holdings of Washington, D.C. and the Illinois Commerce Commission are the other finalists for the award, with the winner to be announced during the the 2019 SEPA Grid Evolution Summit on July 29 in the nation’s capital.

Being included among the 21 finalists for seven Power Players awards has given stakeholders a shot in the arm as they work to secure much of the estimated $10 million needed to fund the project.

“It’s pretty amazing that the project we’ve been working on has gotten up there with those other two finalists, one of which is basically equal to our state Department of Commerce,” Watterson said. “When I started out, my whole thing was that small communities have been left out of the shift of moving to renewable energies a little bit, and I hoped we could show that small communities could play a role. I think just being a finalist helps validate that belief.”

The city of Tenino and the school district signed a memorandum of understanding with PECI in March 2018 authorizing the Portland organization to research the potential capacity of a renewable energy grid in Tenino. It used data from city electrical meters and other forms of community input to produce a document listing the most beneficial project possibilities and helped lead discussions about how to move forward. SEPA lists PECI as the entity up for its Visionary of the Year honor. Neither organization returned calls seeking comment prior to press time.

The installation of solar panels on the roof of Tenino High School in September 2017 proved to be the ignition point for TIER. That project used grant funds from the state Department of Commerce and TransAlta, both of which may prove to be future sources of funding for later stages of TIER. Puget Sound Energy, Centralia College, Washington State University and the Bonneville Environmental Foundation have also been involved in conversations about aspects of the plan.

Joe Belmonte, superintendent of TSD, hopes that as more jobs related to sustainable energies become available, TIER can serve as a launch point for students to not only enter but find success in those fields.

“We’re really focused as a school district on how we can make this a relevant and good outlet for our kids,” Belmonte said. “I would love to see this become a fully integrated system between the city, the school district and the broader Tenino community so that all the people involved see some energy savings and kids can benefit from a really robust educational component. I think it’s been a great collaboration so far; the kind of thing we need in small communities. We don’t have big systems coming to us, but together, we can create one.”

Though TIER currently holds about $300,000 in cash and in-kind contributions combined, Watterson expects a large influx of funding to materialize in the near future. He told The Chronicle this week that one major partner has received a state grant it plans to use to test new technologies in Tenino.

Watterson declined to say how much money TIER could receive from the grant, because the organization is still negotiating with state officials to determine the exact scope of work for the funds. He does expect the final amount to be in the millions of dollars, when all is said and done.

“Dave is a phenom when it comes to these green energy projects,” Tenino Mayor Wayne Fournier said. “He’s had some kind of magic with this where he’s been able to accomplish a lot of different things. Whether or not we win the award, we’ve already won by being nominated alongside much larger projects from much larger jurisdictions. It’s both impressive and a little crazy.”

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