Southwest Washington’s energy advantage

Clark Public Utilities and others work to highlight area’s reliable and affordable source of power

Power lines
VBJ File

Ever wonder why Clark County is home to so many semiconductor manufacturers – the largest assembly in the entire state? While the answer includes a number of different factors, one specific resource continually tops the list: energy.

Access to an immense hydroelectric system makes Clark County’s ability to maintain some of the lowest power prices in the nation a reality. In addition to affordability, it’s a system that is known for its reliability – an important factor in production stability.

“Many industries, especially high-tech manufacturing, run operations continuously throughout the day, and even a slight disruption in power can cause significant interruptions and substantial financial damages in lost product,” said Mike Bomar, president of Columbia River Economic Development Council (CREDC). “This makes the reliability of power a critical factor along with the actual power cost itself.”

In Clark County, Clark Public Utilities, NW Natural and the CREDC seek to create symbiotic partnerships with businesses by focusing attention on affordable power.

“We really pride ourselves on being a partner with our customers,” said Erica Erland, corporate communications manager at Clark Public Utilities. “That is true for residential customers as well, but especially our business customers; we want to work with them and if there are ways that we can improve that partnership, then we are really proactive about doing that.”

Through a range of different incentive programs, officials guide businesses not only in approaches to energy efficiency, but also energy conservation. Whether helping a business convert to LED lighting or collaborating with large manufacturers to make their processes more efficient, these organizations (Clark Public Utilities, NW Natural and CREDC) attempt to offer competitive energy rates to businesses without foregoing reliability.

“We are very committed to customer service, even with our business customers, so every business has an assigned account manager,” said Erland. “We have a team of people who will reach out to certain types of businesses to tell them proactively about the programs that we have.”

Providing $0.055 per kilowatt-hour (p/kWh) power, which is one cent less than Portland’s $0.065 p/kWh and nearly nine cents less than San Jose’s (California) power costs, Clark Public Utilities understands the importance of affordable, yet reliable, energy and the ripple effect it has in attracting new businesses.

“I would say that what makes Clark Public Utilities particularly unique is that for one, we are a public utility, so we are not-for-profit,” said Erland. “I think that when businesses look at an area, they are looking at a lot of different things, but we would certainly like to be one of the appeals of the area.”

An “absolute requirement”

Similarly, from a business standpoint, the Southwest Washington High Technology Council (HTC) recognizes that power not only needs to be affordable and reliable but also predictable, especially in helping global companies decide where to expand to.

Founded in 2001, the HTC supports public policies and initiatives that promote an environment conducive to high-tech development in Clark County. Four of the council’s nine member companies are directly related to the semiconductor industry.

“Like most businesses, we put together two-, three- and five-year business plans, and with electricity being such a high component of our cost, it is an absolute requirement that we have predictable energy costs out into the future,” said Robert Bernardi, chairman of the HTC and president and chief operating officer (COO) of Kokusai Semiconductor Equipment Corporation. “This is really important because not only do all of these companies compete with other companies, they also compete internally within their own company for the next round of expansion.”

Whether attracting new businesses to the area or encouraging existing firms to expand, the CREDC relies on Clark County’s low and reliable power costs as a selling point and realizes the competitiveness these affordable rates give manufacturing companies.

“Historically, the emergence and growth of the local semiconductor industry has been in large part dependent on the availability of both low-cost, reliable power and pure, abundant water,” said Bomar. “The availability of low-cost power, including both historically low natural gas rates and some of the lowest electric power rates in the nation, provides an advantage xto businesses of any scale by reducing overall operating costs.”

Usage and conservation

With the semiconductor industry being such large consumers of electricity, Bernardi believes conservation efforts are not only smart environmentally, but also economically.

“Since we are very large users as an industry of electricity, all of our HTC companies work very diligently controlling and reducing our electricity usage and our carbon footprint because not only is that good for the community and the world, it is also excellent business,” said Bernardi. “What you don’t spend in electricity makes you more profitable.”

Through efforts to improve the process of making a semiconductor to exploring ways to use fewer chemicals, HTC businesses within Clark County are actively working to make conservation a continuous practice.

“Conservation is widely recognized as the most cost-efficient, renewable resource you can possibly have,” said Bernardi. “Yes, we do use a lot of electricity, but we are very active in reducing the amount of electricity we use, in reducing our carbon footprints and being good stewards of the environment and especially the community in which we work and live and raise families.”

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