Growing up in Portland attending Congregation Beth Israel, Rachel Shimshak learned the value of Oregon’s environment and tikkun olam. After graduating from the University of Oregon, she spent 16 years in Colorado, Washington, DC, and Massachusetts gaining experience and skills that now benefit her home state. Since its inception in 1994, Rachel has been the executive director of Renewable Northwest Project – a renewable energy advocacy organization formed by nearly 60 for-profit and nonprofit energy, environment and consumer companies and groups. On Earth Day this year, RNP released a report on the impact of renewables on Oregon’s economy since then.
Investment in new (not existing hydroelectric) renewable energy manufacturing and projects exceeds $9 billion and has contributed more than $79 million in cumulative public revenue to local communities. Wind, solar and geothermal projects also have created an estimated 4,600 jobs in the state, according to the report. “Our mission is to promote the expansion of responsible renewable energy resources in the Northwest,” says Rachel, noting RNP is active in Oregon, Washington, Idaho and Montana. “We have for-profits and nonprofits working together to make good in the world.”
RNP focuses its advocacy on decision makers who influence resource use including officials at utilities, Bonneville Power Administration, state agencies and elected officials. “Utilities are always planning how to meet energy needs,” says Rachel. “We want to make sure they have fair choices and they look at costs and risks associated with each resource.” With the Northwest’s extensive hydroelectric capacity, the region has a history of renewable power as well as a population “that cares about its environment and quality of life.”
“We wanted to build on that and diversify with wind, solar and geothermal,” says Rachel. The region now boasts 7,600 megawatts of energy from new renewable energy projects. To make that number more meaningful, Rachel explains that this capacity is enough to serve the electric needs of almost 2 million households annually. Though RNP launched in 1994, the first project went online in 1998 and most of that additional power is from projects created in the past decade.
“By increasing the new renewable energy in our supply, we are reducing the amount of CO2 going into the atmosphere,” she says, adding that CO2 contributes to global warming. In 1993 Rachel was living in Boston with her husband, David Barenberg, and young son, Max Barenberg, and working as the policy director for the Massachusetts Division of Energy Resources. While in Portland for Thanksgiving with her parents, Jack and Helen Shimshak, she interviewed to become the first executive director of RNP, which a group of businesses and nonprofits had spent three years developing.
Recalling when she phoned to tell her mother she had the job and would be moving to Portland, she says there was a long silence from her mom. She was getting concerned her mom didn’t want her living so close, when she heard her say, “I’m just coming down from the clouds.” Initially Rachel was RNP’s only employee, and “my mother had to come in and do the books.” Her mother died of ovarian cancer in 1997, and Jack, 94, now lives with Rachel, David and Max, 22, a Portland Community College student. The family belongs to Havurah Shalom, where Rachel served as co-president from 2010 to 2011.
As a teenager in Portland, Rachel was very active in the National Federation of Temple Youth, serving a term as president of the region. She received a scholarship from Beth Israel to participate in a summer program in Israel in 1974 with 25 Jewish teens from across the country,including Portlander Cindy Saltzman, who is now publisher of Oregon Jewish Life.
She returned to Israel for the first time in 2010 to visit Max, when he spent a gap year in Israel on the Kivunim program. Max, a graduate of Portland Jewish Academy, also followed her example of teen leadership becoming regional president of BBYO while in high school. At Havurah she feels drawn to the sense of community and adds, “I am very inspired by the music.” Rachel notes she isn’t involved with Havurah’s social action programs because, “I like to separate my work and spiritual life.”
Her work life has provided plenty of opportunities for tikkun olam (healing the world). She likes to recount the many successes of RNP. Tax incentives, such as the wind tax credit that has been extended through 2013, helps keep the playing field level, she says. “Every source of energy is affected by some policy. Oil and gas have been in the tax code for like a hundred years.”
One policy in Oregon that RNP helped get passed is a renewable energy standard that requires the state’s largest utilities to gradually increase the amount of new renewable energy in their supply, so by 2025 new renewables will make up 25% of the electric supply. “With a broad coalition, we negotiated, wrote and supported passage of the law in 2007,” says Rachel. “Utilities that are responsible for meeting the standard are all meeting it at almost no incremental cost … that is, the renewable energy they purchased was competitive with other resources they might have bought.”
Currently more than 40% of the electricity consumed in Oregon comes from fossil fuels and nuclear, she notes.“We are trying to gradually transition away from fossil fuels to a sustainable future,” she says.Another success she is proud of is getting PGE to agree to early retirement of the Boardman Coal Plant in eastern Oregon by 2020.
She says expanding renewables in the recent recession has been challenging for two reasons – energy use decreases in a down economy and natural gas prices have been especially low. While natural gas prices have a history of cyclical prices where extreme lows are followed by extreme highs, she notes that the cost for renewables comes when building the factory or production site. Once built, energy costs are stable for the life of the factory because, “Renewables don’t have fuel costs; Mother Nature supplies the fuel.”But she thinks some of the best news is that in addition to delivering environmental benefits, renewable energy also has economic benefits for the region. For instance, in Sherman County, which was hit hard by the recession, property tax paid by a large wind project sited there has enabled the county to improve roads and pay for school programs. Additionally, the project created a number of construction jobs, as well as permanent jobs at the facility. Columbia Gorge College now has a training program for wind technicians, which means young people can now find jobs where they grew up.
“That’s my happy story,” says Rachel. “These are local resources and local jobs.” Responding to a common concern that wind turbines kill birds, Rachel notes that proper siting to keep wind farms out of migratory paths greatly minimizes that problem. Pollution, cars, house cats and high buildings are all threats to birds. “If we are smart about where we put tall structures, we minimize interactions. We’ve worked hard to create siting criteria,” she says.
Sitting in a downtown Portland office surrounded by photos of beautiful landscapes in the states where RNP is working, Rachel is visibly proud of the work they do.“Our hope is people will connect their energy use to the consequences of its production, just like people have begun to pay attention to where their food comes from.”