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Tennessee goes green

By Dave Flessner
Chatanooga Times Free Press

States eager to tap conservation, renewable energy

Despite the slowing economy, Tennessee’s chief economic recruiter insists there are still plenty of greenbacks to be made by growing the state’s green industry.

A new state study estimates Tennessee could gain more than 40,000 direct and indirect jobs in energy renewable and conservation businesses and another 2,000 jobs from state building conservation improvements if certain incentives and investments are made. Those steps would promote more energy renewable industries and conservation upgrades.

Matt Kisber, Tennessee’s commissioner for Economic and Community Development and a member of the governor’s task force on energy, said Gov. Phil Bredesen is likely to outline a legislative package this year to help make Tennessee more energy efficient and more reliant upon renewable energy. Buoyed by the prospect of additional incentives from the federal stimulus plan, Mr. Kisber said Tennessee should be able to grow its burgeoning green industry base.

“I think Tennessee is well positioned to be a place of significant green-collar job growth,” Mr. Kisber said Monday. “There is a significant amount of potential to create some very meaningful and positive activities in the state around energy conservation and the development of alternative energy sources.”

Tennessee already is home to one of the world’s biggest solar panel manufacturers at Sharp Solar in Memphis, and last year landed both a major biofuels plant in Vonore, Tenn., and a $1.2 billion plant in Clarksville that will make polysilicon for solar panels.

Chattanooga’s biggest employer in the renewable energy business, wind tower maker Aerisyn Inc., cut 54 jobs this month due to what Chief Executive Mike Hohl said are “external factors in the global economy beyond the control of the company.”

Stephen Smith, executive director for the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, said those jobs should return “with good government policy that we hope will come from the Obama administration.”

The research unit of Tennessee’s Department of Labor and Workforce Development released a study last month that projects significant job growth by the three dozen renewable energy companies already operating in Tennessee and the prospects of many more. If the state adopts minimum conservation incentives and uses federal and state resources to promote more green energy jobs, the study suggests, Tennessee could add jobs in construction, manufacturing and selling of green products even during the current economic recession.

“This is clearly a growth industry, in part, because the president has laid that out there as part of the stimulus package and future growth,” said Dr. Bill Fox, director of the Center for Business and Economic Research at the University of Tennessee. “Tennessee has had some recent successes, so I think there is every reason to be optimistic.”

The abundance of cheap, plentiful power from the Tennessee Valley Authority and the lack of state mandates or incentives for conservation have kept electricity consumption in Tennessee among the top states in the nation, for its size. But Mr. Kisber said he hopes the state “can lead by example” in using energy more efficiently.

“Tennessee is one of the most energy-inefficient states in the country,” Mr. Kisber said. “We have been spoiled by decades of having TVA and the premise of cheap and plentiful electricity.”

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