Youth Power Takes On Coal Power in Oregon
Nick Engelfried wants Oregon to be America's first coal-free state.
"Right now, 40 percent of Oregon's energy comes from coal," says the recent college graduate. "That's a relatively small percentage, and we have only one coal plant in the state—Portland General Electric's Boardman plant. We're pushing to get Boardman shut down by 2014 and eliminate our dependence on out-of-state coal by 2020." The Boardman plant, below, is Oregon's largest single emitter of carbon dioxide.
Engelfried got his start in environmental activism as a sophomore at Portland Community College, when a fellow student told him about the Sierra Student Coalition and their Summer Environmental Leadership Trainings, or Sprogs. Sprog is short for (s)ummer (prog)ram.
Engelfried did his training in Washington State in the summer of 2006, then transferred to Pacific University, where he organized an SSC group with the help of SSC's Northwest regional organizer, Jenny Beddel-Stiles.
"There was an existing environmental club on campus," Engelfried says, "but I wanted it to be more focused on activism, so I hooked us up with PowerVote (Youth Voting for Clean Energy) leading up to the November elections. Jenny helped me learn to use PowerVote as a tool for building up my new group."
That winter, Engelfried helped organize a student-led conference on campus, the Washington County Sustainability Summit, featuring speakers from environmental groups and presentations by local elected officials and community leaders. The 2-day event continues to be held each year.
Since graduating in 2009, Engelfried has been working with the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal Campaign in Oregon, providing support to college campuses. "Nick has done an amazing job getting students involved," says Oregon Sierra Club organizer Cesia Kearns, at center below in blue shirt, next to Engelfried. "He's also a great bridge between youth and our silver-haired heroes."
"During my senior year I started thinking a lot about the Club's Oregon coal campaign," Engelfried says. "Over the summer I got a phone call from another coal activist, inviting me to a meeting at the Sierra Club's office. I jumped at the chance to work on an issue that's such a big deal right now. Phasing out coal is the number one thing we can do to stop global warming."
Prior to jumping in with the coal campaign, Engelfried spent a month in the rainforest of Peru, volunteering at a wildlife rehabilitation center on an island in the Amazon River. "We worked mainly with monkeys and other animals that have been rescued from the pet trade," he says. "I also learned about environmental issues affecting the rainforest, particularly the impact of oil and gas development." Below, a photo taken by Engelfried in the city of Iquitos of a street protest about oil & gas and the taking of indigenous lands.
Back in Oregon, Engelfried went to work on college campuses, helping students build environmental groups from scratch and plugging existing groups in with Beyond Coal. "In my work with campus groups this fall I've seen a lot of energy and concern around the issue of coal," he says. "It's a great thing to see."
He also spends a considerable amount of time writing about climate-related topics for online magazines like Yes! and blogs such as the student-oriented It's Getting Hot In Here. "Coal is obviously one of the main topics," he says. "I try to get the word out wherever I can."
Another way he gets the word out is by giving testimony at public hearings involving the Pacific Northwest's energy future. "Nick gives spitfire testimony," says Kearns. "He's one of the best for getting our message out."
"One of the big things I did last fall was get people out to hearings the Northwest Power and Conservation Council was holding in Portland and Eugene," Engelfried says. The Council, representing Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and Montana, is developing a 20-year electric power plan for the region, which it revises every five years. The Portland hearing is pictured above and below.
"What I tried to get across in my own testimony is that young people like myself and other students in the room are the ones who are going to have to deal with the effects of coal and global warming," says Engelfried. "We need our decision-makers to get us off coal reliance."
Engelfried believes Oregon can kick the coal habit within the next decade. "I think that's a reasonable time frame," he says confidently. "Wind is a big renewable energy source right now, but we've barely scratched the surface with solar and geothermal, and we can meet most of our demand for new power through energy efficiency, which is the cheapest and cleanest resource of all.
"Oregon really has an opportunity to lead on this issue and show the rest of the country that it can be done."