Smarter Living: Office

Solar panel installer

Photo: City of Oakland, California

Mechanics construct windmills in Indianapolis while lab techs in Silicon Valley crank out thin-film solar panels. Contractors in Portland weatherize Queen Anne homes, and their counterparts in Pittsburgh fix up low-income apartments. Renewable energy and efficiency projects like these are cropping up in every state, in some cases on a massive scale, boosted by funds from federal and state governments. Drafty windows and underperforming furnaces are the primary targets so far—first steps toward a goal of making cities more sustainable and spurring job growth in the emerging green economy.

In New York State alone, thousands of jobs may be created, sparked by the passage of an energy bill that will finance energy-saving retrofits for hundreds of thousands of homes and businesses in the state. Lee Wasserman, director of the Rockefeller Family Fund and a consultant for the legislation, called it "the most significant state energy-efficiency bill in the nation's history." State senators from both major parties touted its potential to rescue the economy, create jobs and save energy.
Meanwhile, the federal government has allocated $3.2 billion for efficient buildings and energy use, and the Department of Labor plans to dole out $500 million to cities with good ideas for creating green jobs. How many there are, and how many there might be, have stumped the government's head-counters thus far, not least because the definition of a green job is still unclear (see "What Is a Green Job?").

To get a better grasp of the situation, we looked at the efforts of four cities around the country to invest in the green job growth. They are Portland, Oregon, and San Jose, California, on the West Coast; Indianapolis, Indiana, in the Midwest; and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in the East. All expect to receive federal stimulus money for energy efficiency programs. Weatherization, traffic light upgrades and job training are common themes among them, but each city has a unique approach.

Portland's Financing Revolution

Marshall Runkel, owner of the Portland construction company Eco Tech, hired five weatherization workers to start and expects to have 15 by next year. His company installed insulation and windows and sealed cracks in the walls of six homes over the summer. "You can see the result," Runkel says. "I mean, the first project that we completed will take 12,000 pounds of CO2 out of the atmosphere every year."

Eco Tech is one of six contractors hired as part of a financing experiment the city has undertaken. Seeded by $2.5 million of federal stimulus money, a local bank will give 500 homeowners low-interest loans to pay for home improvements. Then they will pay back their loans with their monthly utility bills, but most of the payment should be covered by what they save in heating expenses. The owners get improvements and only have to pay what amounts to a slightly higher monthly utility bill.

Portland's mayor, Sam Adams, believes the plan could become a model for financing energy efficiency conversions around the world. "For us and around the world the biggest barrier has been financing," he says. "That's what's been holding back the green revolution, in my opinion."

In Oregon, some 100,000 homes are drafty, without insulation in the walls or the attics. And the state's unemployment rate of 12 percent (as of August 2009) is well above the national average, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Businesses like Runkel's address both issues, creating jobs and weatherizing homes.

To prepare new workers, the city links community colleges with contractors. "I work with these community development groups, and in exchange I get employees who have training," Runkel says.

They should have jobs as long as people can pay for retrofits. The problem, in Adams's view, is that loans for such improvements are hard to come by. "When it's just as easy to get a loan for a retrofit as it is to get one for a motorcycle, then I'll know we've achieved our goal," he says.

Clean Tech in San Jose

San Jose is staking a good measure of its reputation as a technology innovator on environmental technology, or "clean tech." The city is investing to support businesses that research and develop renewable-energy products like solar panels and biofuels. To do so, the city partnered with two business incubators that focus on green technology. One, the San Jose BioCenter, lends support to biotech start-ups, some of which research methods for producing biogas, the flammable gas released by decomposing plant waste, sewage or other organic materials. By its estimate, it has created more than 600 local jobs.

In January 2009 the city government outlined its ambitions for the next 15 years. Among them are the creation of 25,000 clean tech jobs, the generation of 100 percent of the city's electrical power from renewable resources, a 50-percent reduction in per capita energy use and the retrofitting of 50 million square feet of buildings.

The city is making a critical investment in training, says Jeff Ruster, director of its Office of Economic Development. "The clean tech sector is a very new sector, so training is important," he says. "We do not create jobs; it's the private sector that develops jobs," he adds. But through training programs, "when the job growth happens, we'll be prepared."

Prepared for what, exactly, is what his office is trying to work out. He meets with clean technology companies, labor representatives, colleges and nonprofit groups to figure out which skills the future green workforce will need and how the city can help them prepare. "We do not see ourselves as the sole funder of a system," Ruster says. "We see ourselves as a catalyst."

Meanwhile, last summer the city hired at-risk youth—those from foster homes or under pressure to join gangs, for example—as part of a workforce development program. They cleaned river basins and learned job-hunting skills like preparation for interviews, with an emphasis on applying to "clean and green" companies, as Ruster puts it.

Windy Indy

The breeze blowing over farms and pastures is ideal for turning turbines, and they are sprouting above crops throughout Indiana. There are nearly 300 turbines in the state churning out more than 500 megawatts of electricity, and another 200 are under construction. Indiana leads the nation in wind energy growth, according to a report by the American Wind Energy Association. All or parts of the turbines are manufactured in the United States, and by 2011 Indiana expects to have its first turbine development plant when the Italian wind company Brevini opens its doors there. The plant may create more than 400 jobs.

Building the windmills could give jobs to more than 1,500 people, and 250 people could have long-term work once they're running. Those figures are estimates from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, assuming that the state builds enough turbines to generate 1,000 megawatts. A turbine expert at Purdue University, Chad Martin, says the state is on its way now to reaching that capacity. "When we look at rural Indiana, that's a pretty substantial economic impact," he says. "When you talk about 250 jobs over the long haul for a location like that, that really does make a difference."

"We are on the verge of exploding here in renewable energy in Indiana because we have wind and solar," says Jim Moulder, workforce and economic development coordinator at Ivy Tech Community College in Indianapolis. "It's a very good resource for the farmers," he adds. The college is training future wind and solar energy workers and teaching contractors how to weatherize homes. Indianapolis's city government has made investment in renewable energy and efficiency a high priority. Last year the mayor, Greg Ballard, created an Office of Sustainability and charged it with seeking ways to save money on energy in the long term. Karen Haley heads the office and is overseeing programs like installing more efficient streetlights, buying hybrid vehicles for the city's fleet, expanding bicycle lanes and retrofitting 50 of the city's buildings, some of them with solar panels and green roofs.

"These are long-term solutions that are friendly to the city's pocketbook, but also friendly to the environment," Haley says. She credits the federal stimulus money for jump-starting the green programs. "A lot of projects would have been waiting in the queue," she says, but now they have moved to the forefront. "It's good and it creates jobs."

Haley expects to receive $8 million for sustainability projects from the federal government by the end of this year and estimates that the investment of that money could create about 80 new jobs. In addition to funding the city's programs, she will distribute money to local businesses to defray costs of retrofitting and building sustainably.

Efficiency for Pittsburgh's Poor

Fifteen nonprofit organizations for affordable housing in Pennsylvania are mounting a concerted attack on energy loss. Led by Action Housing, Inc., based in Pittsburgh, the program is still in its infancy, but it aims to increase power and water efficiency in 17,000 multifamily housing units throughout the state. Rather than make the improvements outright, however, experts will teach building owners and managers how to find financing and choose their investments wisely.

"We're basically connecting people to the funding resources that will make these projects feasible," says Lindsay Ruprecht, sustainable community development coordinator for Action Housing. "In affordable housing, funding can be very, very tight."

At this writing, Pennsylvania's state budget is more than two months overdue, and the federal stimulus money is tied up in the legislative deadlock. Action Housing is a leader among dozens of organizations that will use the federal money to weatherize homes. The organization has consulted with city planners on issues of job creation and job training, though training programs are still in the planning stage. Work was scheduled to begin September 15, but bickering in the state's House and Senate has frozen the funds.

Real national statistics on job growth in green industries are not available yet, and may not be for several months. However, those who commented for this report give the impression that there is growth in green jobs and that movement in the green sector is spilling over into supporting industries. The tone overall is of measured optimism in spite of the losses in other fields. San Jose and Portland, for instance, have already installed charge stations for electric cars. But some cities are clearly moving ahead of others, and there is some fumbling as people find their way. Portland's Mayor Adams explains the confusion well: "We're trying to create an industry out of parts of what is loosely called an industry but doesn't really act like one."

last revised 2/2/2012

Get Updates and Alerts

See the latest issue >

NRDC Gets Top Ratings from the Charity Watchdogs

Charity Navigator awards NRDC its 4-star top rating.
Worth magazine named NRDC one of America's 100 best charities.
NRDC meets the highest standards of the Wise Giving Alliance of the Better Business Bureau.

Donate now >

Share | |
Find NRDC on