Green could go long way to reaching 250,000 jobs

With some of his controversial decisions on green economy programs, is Gov. Scott Walker undermining his own goal of creating 250,000 new jobs in the next four years? Green economy advocates certainly don't view Walker as a green jobs evangelist, and many would be happy if he would settle for being an agnostic, but with a weakening national economy and a stunningly disappointing state jobs report for July – 12,500 private-sector jobs were lost in Wisconsin – they believe he is at worst leaving a potentially high-growth industry off the table, and at best undermining investment in it.

Wisconsin is ranked 13th in the nation in clean/green economy jobs, with 76,858, according to a study of the Brookings Institution Metropolitan Policy Program. It remains to be seen how Walker's policies impact long-established "green" companies like Milwaukee's Johnson Controls, which will build a second hybrid battery plant, and promising new-generation businesses like Madison's Virent Energy Systems, which is developing alternative gasoline through processes that include the breakdown of cellulosic biomass into sugars for processing into biofuels, and is looking to scale up the manufacture of Paraxylene (for packaging) from 100% renewable plant sugars, rather than crude oil.

Boosters like Sarah White, senior associate for the Center on Wisconsin Strategy, believe the green economy has great potential to take off. "It's not going to happen because we want it to," she warned. "It requires massive public and private investment, and the leadership and the policies to drive that investment."

While the Walker administration has remained mum on the subject, it has taken steps that impact each potential piece of the green economy – renewables, energy efficiency, and mass transit. Among the most prominent were refusing $810 million in federal money to build a "high-speed" train route from Milwaukee to Madison; cutting the Green to Gold fund, a $100 million revolving, low-interest loan fund designed to help manufacturers lower their energy costs; and, in what some call a defense of property rights, attempting to increase setbacks for wind turbines.

The Governor's approach to wind could be mitigated by the New North, an economic development group that sponsors the Wisconsin Wind Works Consortium – 300 companies that participate in the wind power supply chain. "Far more important than the Governor's decision is the coordinated strategy that has been adopted and the positioning of these companies in the national supply chain for the wind sector," said Tom Eggert, director of the Wisconsin Sustainable Business Council.

While green economy critics detest the government's eagerness to, in their words, "pick winners and losers," White believes Walker's policies have served to outsource green jobs, citing his signing of a bill that will allow hydroelectric power produced in Canada to account for that part of the state's renewable energy requirements. "Most states set up renewable energy standards so that they can drive development of renewables," she noted. "Our governor signs a bill that will allow hydroelectric power produced in Canada to account for that part of the requirements, so a policy that was designed specifically to drive economic development in Wisconsin is undermined by a law that allows much of the economic benefit to be derived elsewhere."

Given the continuing influence of established programs like Focus on Energy, perhaps the administration felt there was some duplication of effort. A private-sector program, Focus on Energy does not receive state funding. Wisconsin investor-owned energy utilities collectively fund Focus on Energy by contributing 1.2% of their revenues to the program, and municipal and cooperative utilities can take part as well. At current funding levels, Focus on Energy receives approximately $100 million annually to assist eligible businesses and residents with the implementation of energy efficiency and renewable energy projects.

For businesses, Focus on Energy provides incentives for energy efficiency measures that are applicable to commercial buildings, and a variety of technologies are supported, including energy-efficient lighting, compressed air, and HVAC equipment. Custom projects such as system or building upgrades or process improvements also receive incentives.

The organization says more than 91,000 businesses and over 1.7 million residents have participated since 2001, and that businesses and residents have saved $2.20 for every dollar invested, which equates to a $319 million reduction in annual energy costs. From a jobs standpoint, the projects are supported by a network of more than 3,000 trade allies and 300 retailers throughout Wisconsin.

While climate change regulations are being developed here and abroad, some believe it's unreasonable to expect full compliance until workable carbon capture and storage technology is available. "Energy efficiency is one of the most viable paths forward, regardless of the state of carbon capture and storage technology," countered William S. Haas, project manager for Focus on Energy. "Energy efficiency results in demand reduction, thus lessening the need for energy supply independent of fuel source."

About 70% of the state's large companies have developed a sustainability strategy, and according to Eggert, Wisconsin is dominated by small and medium-sized businesses, and most of these companies do not have senior managers who are actively engaged in integrating principles of sustainability into business strategy. 

According to Eggert, businesses typically begin by identifying projects that represent "low-hanging fruit." These projects are easy to implement, have a quick return on investment, and spur additional investigation to gain efficiency and reduce costs. Once the easy projects are done, complexity can become a barrier to further progress. "A complaint about complexity of implementation is a good indicator that a company is transitioning from the easy stuff and is now seeking to integrate sustainability thinking into core business decisions," Eggert stated.

One developing industry that may serve businesses' interests is comprised of companies that conduct greenhouse gas audits. Deborah Sweeney, CEO of the California-based MyCorporation Business Services, believes that as technology improves, and as carbon regulations become more specific, auditors will create cottage industries in each state for businesses looking to assess their greenhouse activities and develop strategies to reduce their impacts.

"As the states adopt more laws or establish more rules and regulations, even if merely voluntary, we'll see more auditors pop up," Sweeney said. "One day, it might be a franchise model where there is a process for audits."

In the meantime, she said, many businesses are taking the initiative and self-policing their emissions, some in preparation for government regulations and some due to the value of demonstrating to consumers their commitment to corporate responsibility.

In Wisconsin, which is becoming a more active exporting state, companies that want to sell overseas will have to demonstrate to foreign governments the steps they have taken to reduce carbon output.

Given the state's well-developed manufacturing infrastructure and competitive energy prices, it does not surprise Eggert that Wisconsin ranks highly in green jobs.

"It is far easier to get better at things Wisconsin is already good at," he noted. "I would hope that the current administration looks at what makes us strong in the new technology area and uses this as a springboard to becoming a top 10 state."

 

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