That game played, Chen segued to the message he had traveled 2,350 miles to deliver at the behest of his governor: Oregon, Chen told Browner, had a plan the White House could use as a template to realize the new president’s transformational vision.
The vision had taken root in the public consciousness during the waning days of the 2008 campaign. While Sarah Palin and John McCain preached their litany of “Drill, Baby, Drill,” Barack Obama galvanized the nation by talking about his plan to jump-start the economy with a metaphorical Apollo-moon-shot-meets-New-Deal idea, which would, among other things, wean the nation of its dependence on oil and natural gas and create legions of green-collar jobs by investing in alternative energy projects like wind, solar, and geothermal farms. In his inaugural address, the president had vowed to “harness the sun and the winds and the soil” to create new jobs and “lay a foundation for growth.” Senators debated the merits of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which ultimately would allocate approximately $90 billion of its $787 billion for projects devoted to clean energy and energy conservation (the president signed the bill less than two weeks after Chen’s visit.)
For two weeks before and two weeks after the inauguration, Chen told Browner, he and the governor’s chief of staff, economic adviser, and twelve of Portland’s brightest greens had gathered in a Brewery Blocks conference room—LEED rated, of course—nights and weekends and hatched an audacious stimulus-spending plan. The plan would direct Oregon’s share of the $37 billion in grants for energy, transportation, and water conservation projects to a prescreened set of green initiatives that showcased the state’s sustainability know-how. They called the plan the Oregon Way.
For forty-five minutes, Browner listened. Although she declined to comment about Chen’s visit, a Democratic strategist with close ties to the Obama administration says the unconventional emissary from Oregon made an impression on the energy czar: “Several people in the White House I talked to were saying, ‘This is great!’ This is exactly the kind of thing that they want to engender. Oregon may be a small state, but it’s well positioned [to lead]. The White House is looking to cities like Portland to show how this can be done.”
As is the State House, in Salem.
The energy saved could power fourteen thousand homes while scrubbing the atmosphere of eighteen metric tons of carbon dioxide and keeping ninety-one million gallons of water from leaving Bull Run.
TWO WEEKS LATER, Chen is back in Portland and waiting for an elevator outside the office suite he shares with Ater Wynne, on the eighth floor of a freshly minted LEED-rated tower at NW Lovejoy Street and 14th Avenue, a building so new the vestibule smells of drying plaster and curing low-VOC paint. It’s precisely 5 p.m., the end of another productive yet dispiriting workday that, as anyone with a deflated 401(k) can understand, had seen Equilibrium’s once-substantial pool of capital continue to evaporate. Chen, who often commutes from his home on NW Thurman Street on a Ducati, is carrying his motorcycle helmet by its chin strap and wearing a black-padded leather racing jacket, his well-worn ThinkPad cocooned in a Timbuk2 messenger bag and slung over a shoulder. “For us to execute this program, we have lots of steps to go through,” he is saying. “This was a very, very small move along the way, part of generating awareness of the strength of the expertise we’ve built here in Oregon. What we’re trying to do is use federal stimulus dollars to try to accomplish something important. It’s not to negate the need to patch roads—those are very real, very critical things to do. But we can use this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity in funding to leave behind key foundational components of a new sustainable economy, to create a few transformational examples that can be replicated nationwide.”