I’ll just come right out and admit it: I’m a fan of this so-called “green” economy.
But I also cover energy; and time and again, when I talk with economic development officials, lawmakers, entrepreneurs and wonks of all stripes I hear that we’ve great potential to “green” ourselves out of this mess.
And I’m not just talking about putting up wind turbines (though that seems poised to become a valuable industry in its own right). New opportunities are on the horizon for firms specializing in energy efficiency retrofits. State officials are encouraging the adoption of new power generation sources like biogas from landfills and anaerobic digesters – “turning waste to megawatts.”
At the same time, if Hoku Materials ever gets its Pocatello polysilicon plant up and running (and we hope it does) it will bring a whole new industry to the state, supporting solar energy producers around the world.
Geothermal power also holds great promise – especially in the southern parts of the state – and Boise-based U.S. Geothermal is a leader in developing the resource. Nuclear power may also be in the state’s future, with pioneering work being done every day at the Idaho National Laboratory, but that remains to be seen.
All these industries (and there are more I haven’t mentioned) are important not only because they reduce pollution or make strides toward broadening Idaho’s economic base, but because they mean jobs. And well-paying jobs, at that.
From technology firms designing control programs, to manufacturing plants turning out turbine blades, to plumbers and electricians who understand the newest energy-saving gadgets, the “green” economy has powerhouse potential.
In fact, green jobs are already making an impact. According to estimates from the Idaho Department of Labor, the state’s green energy sector employs about 49,000 workers earning a total of $2.6 billion – 12 percent of total wages and 7.5 percent of total jobs.
This in a state where even 15 years ago the average Idahoan would have thought the “green economy” had something to do with mint growers.
That perception has changed largely due to the efforts of Idaho’s universities, community colleges and professional-technical schools, which have done an admirable and far-sighted job of establishing training programs for these 21st century jobs.
But many I’ve spoken to say more incentives are needed to spur development. State officials respond that the money simply isn’t there, or that federal regulations haven’t forced the issue yet. On top of that: How will training and education programs fare under another year of budget cuts?
Now it’s time to admit something else: News of additional education holdbacks had me down. But I was heartened to hear on Jan. 20 that Idaho would be the recipient of a $6 million grant for green jobs training released under the federal stimulus program.
Called the State Energy Sector Partnership and Training Grants program, and administered by the U.S. Department of Labor, the funds will support veterans, dislocated workers, and low-skill adults and youth who want to acquire training at high schools, universities, professional-technical schools or in apprenticeship programs.
I know that $6 million is a drop in the bucket when compared with the budget shortfalls and economic bloodletting faced over the past year or so, but it’s something. And so far this year, the program has released nearly $440 million to support such efforts nationwide. That number is expected to rise to $500 million by the end of the year.
We’re still a long way from the end of this recession, and Idaho’s economy is definitely more in the red than it is green, but spending money to prepare workers for a whole new economy of well-paying jobs seems to me like money well spent, and an investment we can ill afford to forego.