DON BRUNELL: State is a hotbed for green energy

Two studies recently confirmed what most people in Washington already know: Our state is a hotbed for green energy innovation, conservation and job creation.

Two studies recently confirmed what most people in Washington already know: Our state is a hotbed for green energy innovation, conservation and job creation.

Earlier this month, the green research firm Clean Edge released its study of “clean-tech” jobs. It listed the top 15 metro areas in the U.S. for jobs in fields such as renewable energy and energy efficiency.

The Puget Sound region (Seattle/Tacoma/Bremerton) and Portland/Salem ranked seventh and eighth respectively. These jobs also compete where it matters most – on pay level – offering family-wage jobs for first-time job seekers and mid-career changers alike.

Another good read on this emerging economic sector is the Pew Charitable Trusts’ study, “The Clean Energy Economy.” The report breaks down where the jobs are, and again Washington state is listed as one of 12 states that have a “large and growing” clean energy economy.

Historically, Washington has been a leader in green energy. For more than a century, we generated most of our electricity from dams on the Columbia River. Hydropower is a source of affordable clean energy that produces no greenhouse gases. Washington jumped on the wind energy bandwagon quickly, and according to the American Wind Energy Association, our state is among the top five in wind power production behind Texas, Iowa, California and Minnesota.

Both the Clean Edge and Pew studies emphasize the importance of innovation and emerging industries — and there are plenty of examples to draw on here in Washington.

For example, Schweitzer Engineering Labs, Inc. (SEL) in Pullman developed digital technology to move electricity more efficiently and safely. SEL, a leader in patented “smart grid” technology for utilities and businesses, is expanding into the residential market and investing in SmartGridCity, the nation’s first fully integrated smart grid community in Boulder, Colo.

SEL has grown from its humble beginnings in Ed Schweitzer’s garage in 1982 to more than 1,900 people worldwide. Located just a stone’s throw from SEL headquarters, Washington State University has also become a center for clean energy research, including smart grid technology.

Another example of innovation is REC Silicon in Moses Lake. Engineers and researchers there have patented more than 20 new processes to produce high-grade silicon for solar panels using 10 to 20 percent less electricity than the traditional process. The company is spending some $800 million on the project.

SEL and REC are examples of private sector investments in new energy technology, some of which is spurred along by tax incentives. Tax credits also encourage people to use energy more wisely.

The new federal stimulus program is helping as well. For example, in Vancouver, Christensen Shipyards Ltd. received a $l million federal grant to retro-fit its manufacturing equipment to make vertical wind turbines, as well as buoys that use the continuous wave energy of the ocean to generate power. The wave energy prototype is to be deployed off the Oregon coast.

Across the nation, clean energy employment is growing. Between 1998 and 2007, jobs in the clean energy economy grew at a national rate of 9.1 percent while traditional jobs grew by only 3.7 percent. By 2007, more than 68,200 businesses across all 50 states and the District of Columbia accounted for more than 770,000 jobs.

The private sector views the clean energy economy as a significant and expanding market opportunity. Venture capital investment in clean technology reached $12.6 billion by the end of 2008. In 2008 alone, investors directed $5.9 billion into American businesses in this sector, a 48 percent increase over 2007 investments.

Pew ranked Washington fourth in the country in attracting venture capital investments in clean energy companies.

The key to continuing that growth in Washington and across the nation is research and development by companies such as SEL, REC Silicon and Christensen coupled with the research at universities such as Washington State University.

As we focus on emerging clean energy technologies, we must also make sure that we have enough affordable energy to meet the future needs of our factories, schools, hospitals and homes.

Don Brunell is the president of the Association of Washington Business.

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