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Road to Recovery: Green Tech Has Potential, But Is It Enough?



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(Sacramento, CA)
Monday, January 18, 2010
This morning we begin a series called “Road to Recovery.”  It’s a major collaboration with the Sacramento Bee.  In the coming months, we’ll profile industries and individuals as we examine ways the Sacramento Region might climb out of the “Great Recession.

We begin with a bright-spot defined by a buzz word – “Green-tech.”  That’s everything from the installation of solar panels and high-efficiency heating systems to research into new energy sources.  A recent study found the number of “green jobs” in the Sacramento area grew at a faster rate than anywhere else in California between 1995 and 2008.  But is the green sector really strong enough to give the Capital region a boost?


First Day on the Job
 
Meet Jim Ridgley.  Sacramento native.  Ex-Marine.  And just like anyone might be on their first day at a new job, he’s a bit nervous.
 
Ridgley: “Oh yeah, absolutely!”
 
Ridgley’s at a home on the outskirts of Davis, shadowing a crew installing a solar energy system.  He’s watching closely as crew chief Brian Fronk sets up equipment in the garage.
 
Ridgley: “Just gonna tap into here?”
Fronk: “Nope, this will actually run into the inverter, and then we’ll run a piece of conduit off the main panel…”
 
And for someone like Ridgley, who’s spent his entire career in conventional construction and electrical work, it’s quite the learning curve.
 
Ridgley: “That being, Sun– what is it, SunWorld?
Fronk: “SunPower.”
Ridgley: “SunPower…”
 
Ridgley: “They’re showing parts and pieces I’ve never seen in my 10-plus years of doing electrical. Going from the commercial side to the green side. It’s a whole nother ballgame.”
 
Ridgley’s at work for the first time in four months.  He lost his old job in September, when the construction firm he worked for went out of business and laid him off.  His job applications were rejected so many times, he decided he’d go anywhere for work – even Alaska.
 
Ridgley: “Oh my gosh, it’s been stressful. It’s been a very trying time. I’m 40 years old and never in my entire life have I been on unemployment.”
 
Finally, a solar company called Sierra Pacific Home and Comfort hired him.  It picked him out of a pool of dozens.  Now, Ridgley’s in a whole new industry – working for less than half his old salary.
 
Ridgley: “And I hope they’re not requiring me to learn it in just three hours’ time today.  We’ll have a depressing conversation tomorrow if they expect me to do this by tomorrow. Come find me at McDonald’s. I’m kidding…”
 
Sierra Pacific sells, designs and installs everything from solar panels for electricity to energy efficient heating and air systems.  Eventually, Ridgley will be expected to do the design part.  But first, he’s letting crew chief Brian Fronk show him the ropes.
 
Fronk: “With his commercial experience and electrical, he’s gonna be a good asset to our team.”


From Blue to Green
 
Jim Ridgley’s story is one a lot of people in the Sacramento region hope to see more of – and soon: blue-collar workers transitioning from conventional backgrounds to green.
 
Mazzei: “That’s probably a very common pathway we’re going to see when we look ahead.”
 
Kristine Mazzei runs a project called the Green Capital Alliance.  She works with business, education and government to boost the region’s green tech industry.  And she says Sacramento is uniquely positioned because of what she likes to call the three I’s:
 
Mazzei: “Intellect, innovation and influence.”
 
Intellect – with UC Davis, Sac State and strong community colleges.  Innovation – with progressive utilities like SMUD and PG&E.  And the influence of being in the state capital.
 
Mazzei: “We have all the pieces falling into place to really support an expansion of this industry. And it’s a pretty exciting time to be in Sacramento, cause we’re seeing the growth and expansion of something that’s entirely new.”
 
In fact, politicians at every level of government are banking on clean energy technology to help rescue the economy.  Just this month, for example, President Obama pushed an initiative to create thousands of new green tech jobs:
 
Obama: “Building a robust clean energy sector is how we will create the jobs of the future – jobs that pay well and can’t be outsourced.”
 
Governor Schwarzenegger talks the industry up every chance he gets:
 
Schwarzenegger: “We believe very strongly that the biggest explosion will be in green technology and the green economy.”
 
And even Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson is on the bandwagon:
 
Johnson: “We as a state and certainly we as a city, have an opportunity to be a hub when it comes to the green industry.”


Cause for Skepticism?
 
But hold on a second.  Just how far can green tech lead us down the Road to Recovery?  The data’s pretty sparse right now, but the numbers we found suggest the industry is currently just one or two percent of the region’s total workforce – about 13,000 jobs.  That’s well behind the estimated four percent figure statewide.  And it’s one reason why Sacramento State economist Sanjay Varshney isn’t wearing green-colored glasses.

Varshney: “I think we might not be as advanced in the cycle as some other cities might be, including San Jose and San Diego.  Because if you look at the investment that has already gone into the green tech sector in those areas, it far surpasses the kind of investment we have seen in the Sacramento region."
 
So clean energy might not be the silver bullet to save our economy.  But that doesn’t mean it can’t help.  According to a recent study from the California Community Colleges system, Sacramento could see a growth of up to 3,500 energy efficiency jobs over the next three years.  And that’s just a portion of the total green tech sector.  Which brings us back to Jim Ridgley, who’s ready for his new career.
 
Ridgley: “It’s a blessing, it really is. Because with the green tech, it’s not gonna get us out, but it is a forefront – and it is a forefront with this company, which has great stability.”
 
And after four months on the unemployment rolls, stability is what Ridgley needs the most.
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