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Stimulus can energize Asheville's green economy

By Dale Neal
Citizen Times

ASHEVILLE – In the green industry of tomorrow, electricians will wire solar panels with the aid of instructions loaded into an iPod.

ASHEVILLE – In the green industry of tomorrow, electricians will wire solar panels with the aid of instructions loaded into an iPod.

Construction workers will insulate houses with a foam spray made from soybeans. And cars will run on biodiesel made from algae.

With people already training for those jobs in the classroom, business leaders in Western North Carolina are betting they can make that future happen by tapping into federal stimulus money intended to feed the so-called green economy.

“If you drive around Asheville, you see the solar panels on the Green Sage Café downtown and all the Arby's restaurants,” said Russ Yelton, who heads the Global Institute for Sustainability Technologies at Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College. “People are already doing sustainable technologies now.”

President Barack Obama has heralded the green-collar jobs as an answer to manufacturing job losses and dependence on foreign oil.

The size and potential growth of renewable energy companies in North Carolina are difficult to estimate, but a survey last summer by the N.C. Sustainable Energy Association estimated firms employed about 6,500 workers. About 70 percent of those jobs were in manufacturing.

Companies responding to another survey in February said they could more than double employment by the end of 2010 if economic conditions loosened. Nearly six out of 10 responding companies said the credit crunch is the biggest drag on expansion.

In WNC, jobs in the green economy are taking root in Clean Energy Business Incubator at A-B Tech's Enka campus.

The incubator houses 41 startup companies, which saw a total of $4 million in revenues in 2007, along with $2 million in investment, creating 51 full-time jobs with an average annual wage of $32,000.

A $666,050 appropriation for A-B Tech's green-collar job training made it into the most recent spending bill approved by Congress. A $354,000 grant through the U.S. Department of Energy last year helped to create the incubator.

Growing jobs

Business leaders hope the incubator will provide a ready-made pipeline for stimulus money, producing new jobs in the near future, Yelton said.

Yelton can wander the renovated halls of the former BASF research building, past the doors of entrepreneurs creating new products for biodiesel from algae, a solar-powered filter for clean water, advanced composting for animal carcasses and other new ideas.

Steve DeWeese has jobs already growing out of his Endless Supply company.

While the construction industry has suffered with the slowdown in the housing market, DeWeese sees a growing demand for his spray foam insulation made from soybeans instead of petroleum products.

His company has already installed the competitively priced insulation in homes, businesses and at a student dorm at Appalachian State.

“We've been very busy and see a lot of growth on the horizon, even though the construction industry is off. The homes that are being built, contractors are looking at energy efficiency and how they can give the homeowner the best return on their investment. Spray foam insulation, especially a green version, has received a lot of attention.”

Endless Supply has already seen more business this quarter in the midst of the recession than the previous three quarters combined, DeWeese said, with a 100 percent increase in sales. He plans to add two more positions to his staff of four in the next few months.

The federal recovery act should provide a boost to business, by tripling the tax credit to 30 percent up to $1,500 for homeowners who improve the energy-efficiency of their homes with insulation and other technologies.

“People had been seeing a payback in three to five years. With these new tax credits, that window could be two to three years,” DeWeese said.

The federal stimulus contains more than $136 million for weatherization projects in North Carolina, according to the state agency formed to manage the federal money.

It devotes another $49.5 million to other clean-energy projects in the state, the Solar Energy Industries Association told The Associated Press.

Debate on green economy potential

Officials on the state and local level are still divvying up the money to spend from Washington, but the White House estimates the stimulus will generate 7,500 new jobs for the 11th Congressional District of Western North Carolina. Yelton said he believes that estimate is realistic.

A Duke University researcher who studied the potential for green-collar job growth said parts suppliers and manufacturers should see sharp growth, but predictions are difficult.

“Even for really specific technologies, those job estimates were hard to come by and were just guesstimates,” said Duke sociologist Gary Gereffi, who co-authored a study on green-collar jobs last fall.

The global institute at Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College is counting companies in the region with the help of Western Carolina University graduate students.

“Several hundred companies could be considered as green here, and now we're trying to look at their suppliers. If we could just create five jobs per company, that would be a lot of jobs,” Yelton said.

The numbers are still being collected for 2008, but “most of those numbers have doubled,” Yelton said.

Some skeptics say the growth of green jobs will reduce the number in other fields and that other parts of the country will be competing in the same field.

“I'm sure we have some of what economists call comparative advantages” in Western North Carolina, said Todd Cherry, who teaches economics at Appalachian State University. “But when you travel around to other states, they're all saying the same thing. We can't all be right.”

Traditional trades important in new economy

Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College officials see particular potential in solar hot water and photovoltaic systems and green building.

“If you look at who these green-collar workers are going to be, you have to look at your traditional trades,” said Vernon Daugherty, dean of engineering and applied technology. “If you're talking about solar photovoltaic, then you're talking about electricians being involved. They are the only people who can connect that wiring to the grid.”

On the main campus, curriculum classes are training carpenters, electricians, heating and air conditioning technicians in sustainable or green technologies. “It's a natural evolution in training,” Daughtery said. “We can't teach students to build their parents' house. We have to teach them to build the houses of today and the houses of five years from now that we haven't even seen.”

Yelton said classes that teach electricians to wire the often complicated arrays of solar photo voltaic panels are being recorded on video and loaded onto video iPods that a worker could strap onto his tool belt and take into the field. “They can refer to the video rather than bother a supervisor.”

Yelton envisions when a plumber working on a solar thermal hot water system in downtown Asheville could connect to the Internet to stream a video as a refresher.

About 35 people are enrolled in the electrician classes, according to Frank Miceli, head of the electronics and computer engineering technology. Many students are interested in learning more about solar panel wiring as a potential career.

“Green seems to be where the jobs are going,” said Chris Valery, 42, who is finishing up his electronics engineering degree this semester. “I'm looking at several different avenues, but solar panels sound interesting.”

Cherry said green jobs that are created may come at the expense of other jobs.

“If we're getting our energy from renewable sources, then all the people that are working in those industries, they'll benefit, but all the people working in the ‘brown' jobs, they're going to be hurt,” he said.

Backers of efforts to create green jobs say they are more likely to be created domestically since renewable energy sources are often located close to where the energy is used.

Cherry said one benefit of green jobs is that many will be created in rural areas, but that job creation is not as strong an argument for green jobs as the environmental benefits and energy independence.

“There are legitimate issues and real important issues that should be driving the decisions, but it seems like jobs is an easy flag to wave,” he said.

FLS Energy of Black Mountain donated an array of solar panels to Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College for students to learn how to wire the systems. Most of its installers have been hired through the alternative energy program at Appalachian State University. “It would be great if the community college closer to home was providing us with graduates with the same type of skill,” said Michael Shore, who heads FLS Energy.

“This is what is coming,” said Daugherty. “If there is any area in the country where a green jobs economy would take hold, it's got to be Asheville. This is a very progressive, environmentally friendly place.”

Staff writer Mark Barrett and The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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