A Building Full of Answers
by Tim Steury | © Washington State University
Maybe it's their nondescript building, one of a row of identical structures just off of Plum Street on the way into Olympia. Or maybe it's their curious history, once a government entity, then oddly tossed to the budget dogs by an otherwise environmentalist governor. Maybe it's the fact that it's with Washington State University Extension, but doesn't really cost us anything. Or maybe it's all those 800 numbers connecting it to the outside world. And then again, maybe it was just me.
I've got to admit, I just didn't understand the WSU Energy Program until I stopped in for a visit late last summer. Not really familiar with the Center of Power, I was a little confused by the locked door and the intercom. But once I got inside and upstairs with all the energy experts, what a great surprise! How often is it that you find a building full of answers?
When Governor Lowry axed the Washington State Energy Office in 1996, its responsibilities were parceled out to various agencies, says Jacob Fey, who had started the state Energy Office in the early 1970s and is now director of the Energy Program. Cooperative Extension saw a unique opportunity and asked for the programmatic and information responsibilities, as well as the designation as state entity for operating federal programs.
Today the Energy Program operates with nearly 60 people and a $6 million budget. But Fey's position is the only one funded by the state. "All other positions," he says, " are based on our ability to bring in competitive dollars.
"The nature of our business is like a consulting firm. We're only here as long as we bring in dollars."
As a result, engineers with the program consult on cooling systems with the United Arab Republic and develop software for the European Union and Chile. The program has a consultant working full-time at Fort Lewis, managing its energy program. But the core of the Energy Program is in providing expertise and information in renewable energy and industrial technology. It also operates call centers and information clearinghouses.
If you call a Department of Energy 800 number with any sort of energy related question, a phone rings in the Energy Program building. A variety of information clearinghouses answer questions ranging from the very basic to the very technical-questions having to do with alternative fuels, heating and cooling, codes and standards, electric motors, and renewable energy.
During the first six months of last year, the program handled about 10,000 inquiries, says Lee Link, who manages the clearinghouses. The inquiries came from everyone from homeowners to engineers for utility companies.
A couple of years ago, the Department of Energy's Oak Ridge National Laboratory evaluated the outreach of these clearinghouses, addressing cost-benefit ratio. The result, says Link, was $20 in energy savings for every dollar expended on the program.
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