By the Herald editorial staff
It's encouraging to hear Tri-City business leaders talking about plans to capitalize on the Mid-Columbia's energy industry.
Promoting clean energy development is a natural fit, considering the diversity of energy sources spread throughout the region and the expertise of our workers and researchers.
But we need a broader -- and far more urgent -- conversation about our economic future. The federal dollars fueling the Mid-Columbia's prosperity are going away, and we're not prepared.
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The Department of Energy plans to shrink the size of Hanford's active cleanup area to 75 square miles around the central plateau area by 2015.
That means fewer cleanup jobs as work to restore the river corridor is completed. Fortunately, it also means opportunity for much of the 586-square-mile reservation.
It's high time to start serious talks about potential uses of those parts of the reservation that are cleaned up and no longer are needed by the federal government.
About 60 square miles of the Hanford site, most of it near Richland, could be available for industrial uses within a few years.
But big questions need to be answered. Can parts of Hanford be sold as surplus? What are the appropriate uses? Is there a role for the federal government beyond safeguarding the public from remaining hazards?
Those questions can't be answered in a vacuum.
The Tri-City Development Council and leaders in local energy businesses, research, job training and education have worked on developing the clean energy initiative since January.
Now, the broader community -- state officials, the Northwest's congressional delegation, DOE and other stakeholders -- needs to join the discussion.
The conversation needs to be ongoing and aimed at producing concrete plans for the Mid-Columbia's economic well-being.
The Smart Energy Initiative, as the effort is called, is a good starting point. The concept marries existing assets with an industry poised for explosive growth.
Energy production in the Mid-Columbia includes wind, hydroelectricity, coal, natural gas and a nuclear plant. The list will soon include a biomass power plant.
About 40 percent of state's total power production and all of its wind power is produced within 100 miles of the Tri-Cities, TRIDEC's Gary Petersen points out.
The intellectual and industrial muscle needed to advance the initiative is also in place. Energy companies cover nuclear, wind and solar energy.
The Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and Washington State University Tri-Cities' Bioproducts Science and Engineering Laboratory are home to some of the nation's top energy experts.
As a way to jump-start a resurgence, the TRIDEC coalition is proposing a variety of "green" alternatives to the diesel-fired electrical production at Hanford's vitrification plant.
It's a sizeable project. The plant could require as much as 70 megawatts of electrical power. On a demanding day, it could burn up to 45,000 gallons of diesel.
The coalition has produced a promising plan -- one that could advance DOE's goals of developing alternative forms of energy that reduce greenhouse gases and the nation's dependence on foreign supplies of fossil fuels.
Even if you subscribe to the notion that the federal government's responsibility to the Mid-Columbia ends with Hanford cleanup, the proposal has merit.
Keeping the Mid-Columbia economy humming and providing clean, abundant, affordable sources of energy are in the national interest.
As Hanford's landowner and the agency responsible for the nation's energy policy, DOE ought to be leading the charge.