Without doubt, “clean tech” business will help drive jobs and economic growth in the Pacific Northwest in the years to come. The questions are, how important will green technology business be in the Pacific Northwest and how can we all help realize its full potential?
To the first question, studies size up clean tech among the largest economic opportunities of the 21st century. A report commissioned by the American Solar Energy Society projects that so-called “green-collar jobs” could grow dramatically, from 8.5 million U.S. jobs today to 40 million jobs in renewable-energy and energy-efficiency by 2030.
Seattle-based nonprofit Climate Solutions, and Clean Edge Inc., a Portland based economic research firm, echo this optimism more locally, noting that Washington and Oregon are poised to add tens of thousands of jobs in the clean-technology “green power” industry by 2025.
For Washington state, Gov. Chris Gregoire has translated this into a strategic goal of 25,000 “green collar” jobs by 2020. Gregoire has said that in a short space of time Washington state has placed itself in the top five in wind and solar power, industries that she said weren’t even on the “radar screen” a few years ago.
The report by Climate Solutions and Clean Edge says the five subcategories of green power likely to do best in the Oregon and Washington region are manufacturing solar components, designing and building “green” buildings, developing and managing wind-power operations (but not manufacturing the equipment), turning biological materials such as wood and farm waste into energy, and developing ‘smart grid’ technologies that squeeze efficiency from the electrical transmission system.
Seeing this enormous potential for the region prompted me to ask how Whatcom County measures up, and to assess what “clean tech” activities are happening at our local level. Answering these questions statistically is challenging, as standardized industry classifications for these emerging industries are not yet fixed. But the stories and experiences of a few local companies stand out and I would like to share their successes.
Andgar Corp., based in Ferndale, recently completed construction on a 10,000 dairy cow anaerobic digester, and has started construction on a digester to handle manure from a 15,000 cow milking dairy herd, both in Southern Idaho. The 15,000 cow digester is thought to be the largest dairy digester in the U.S. and possibly the world. The anaerobic digester uses bacteria to break down the manure in a chamber while capturing methane, which can be used to generate heat or electricity.
Whatcom County also has a standout in the clean bio-technology sector. Bellingham biodiesel marketing company and distributor Whole Energy, which began offering biodiesel at the Bellingham Farmers Market in 2004, now provides fuel to 21 retail locations in Washington, five of them in Whatcom County. The number of biodiesel retailers in the state has nearly tripled and the number of distributors almost doubled since 2005, with 59 retailers and 31 distributors now operating in Washington. Whole Energy is awaiting the final permit for construction of a biodiesel production plant in California with the capacity to produce 3 million gallons of local, sustainable fuel each year.
Lummi Island Wild, a reefnet wild salmon fishing company, has successfully mixed modern and traditional technology to create the world’s first solar-powered fishery. Lummi Island Wild collaborated with Alpha Energy, a Bellingham-based nationwide integrator of commercial photovoltaic systems, to install solar panels on fleet boats to charge the batteries for the net winches. The boats are now “off the grid,” and no longer have to risk a spill from carrying auto batteries across Puget Sound waters. In 2007 they received the Governor’s Award for Pollution Prevention and Sustainable Practices.
Alpha Energy, a member of The Alpha Group and a division of Alpha Technologies Inc., is a full-service engineering and project development company for the distributed generation power industry. One of the nation’s leading developers of turnkey photovoltaic systems for commercial, residential, institutional and remote (off-grid) applications, Alpha Energy is recognized as a market innovator in packaging renewable energy technologies.
There are also success stories to share from educational activities at our local institutions. Just the other day I talked to Professor George Kriz at WWU’s chemistry department. He informed me that Western has introduced ‘green’ chemistry into the Chemistry curriculum, integrating green chemical concepts and new laboratory techniques based on industry best practice.
So what can we do to help develop clean tech industries?
I recently talked to Graham Evans, the executive director of Washington Clean Technology Alliance, a business alliance for clean tech sectors in Washington state. Evans expressed the need for a sense of urgency to realize the economic and job opportunities of a green economy, and to address the challenges of climate change.
“We will need to keep focused on the potential and the need amidst short term signals from the market place,” Evans added. He noted that recent easing of oil prices, coupled with the global financial crisis, is making it harder for renewable energy companies to find long-term funding.
The report by Climate Solutions and Clean Edge points to other significant barriers to development of green technologies in the Pacific Northwest, such as a lack of venture capital, the absence of tech-centric universities such as Stanford or MIT, a limited managerial talent base; a rickety electrical grid; and, most critically, the absence of a coherent regional strategy to build green power.
The report underlines that realizing the “green tech” potential will require strategic leadership from government, business leaders and higher education at all levels, clearing the way to expand the green-tech businesses for which the region is most suited.
Preparing the work force for these future jobs is also key. While some green-collar jobs (e.g., wind turbine technician) are new occupations, most are existing jobs that demand new green economy skills. For example, construction companies building and retrofitting buildings need workers with traditional construction skills who also have the up-to-date training in energy efficiency. Likewise, employers doing solar installation need workers with conventional electrical training, in addition to specialized solar skills.
With a background in the computer tech sector, I see parallels between clean tech today and the early days of PCs and networks. Clean tech is starting from a relatively small base driven by technological innovation, and is underinvested relative to the size of the potential market. Following on the heels of the computer, Internet, and biotech revolutions, “clean tech” promises to bring unprecedented opportunities for wealth creation, high-growth career development, and innovative solutions to a range of global problems.
To help answer the questions raised in this column and more, TAG has invited Graham Evans to speak at our next monthly speaker program on Nov 21. Join us to learn more about the state of clean technology, including barriers and opportunities that lie ahead. For more information visit www.tagnw.org.