Going for the green

Going for the green
by Bennett Hall

October 31, 2009

  • Green jobs by the numbers
    Green jobs in Oregon:
  • 51,402
    Share of total employment:
    3 percent
  • Average wage:
    $22.61 per hour
  • Expected growth, 2008-2010:
    14 percent
  • Additional jobs:
  • Source: Oregon Employment Department
  • What makes a job green?
  • The Oregon Employment Department defines a green job as one that involves:
  • 1. Increasing energy efficiency
  • 2. Producing renewable energy
  • 3. Preventing, reducing or mitigating environmental degradation
  • 4. Cleaning up and restoring the natural environment
  • 5. Providing education, consulting, policy promotion, accreditation, trading and offsets or similar services supporting categories 1-4

Who says there’s no profit in saving the planet?

Savage Rapids Dam post-removal. Photo courtesy of Bureau of Reclamation.

Not the folks at River Design Group, an environmental engineering consultancy with a six-person office in Corvallis. They’ve been hired to manage the removal of the Gold Ray Dam on the Rogue River in southern Oregon – a $5.5 million job that will employ dozens of people, from engineers to biologists to construction workers.

“This will be our third dam removal project on the Rogue,” said Scott Wright, a senior water resources engineer with the company, which was also involved in breaching the Savage Rapids Dam this summer and taking out Gold Hill Dam last year.

“It’s monumental to see three dams come out (on the Rogue),” Wright added. “Nobody would ever have predicted in our lifetime that would happen.”

Suddenly, green is the color of money in more ways than one as environmental and economic concerns increasingly converge to create a new class of Earth-friendly employment opportunities – and state economic development officials are scrambling to make the most of them.

In a report released this summer, Oregon Employment Department economists estimated there were 51,402 “green jobs” across the state last year, or about 3 percent of the total workforce.

The report also concluded that these jobs pay slightly higher-than-average wages and that the sector should continue to expand despite the recession – a survey of employers yielded a growth projection of 14 percent, or 7,400 new jobs, through 2010.

Other findings, however, were not so rosy. A great many of the jobs in this emerging green economy, it turns out, aren’t really new at all.

“A lot of the businesses that are out there doing green things are also doing other things,” noted Will Summers, a workforce analyst with the Employment Department who contributed to the report, titled “The Greening of Oregon’s Workforce.”

For instance, if a carpenter spends 50 percent of his time building energy-efficient housing, that would count as a half-time green job. A truck driver who hauls nothing but compost or recycling material would be considered a full-time green position – even if her truck runs on fossil fuels.

In most cases, it’s not a specialized set of skills that define green jobs but rather how those skills are used.

“When we looked at the process of making solar panels, it’s a process that’s very similar to making computers,” Summers said. “Because it’s a green product, we would call them green jobs, but you could use the same line to make motherboards.”

Shades of green

On the other hand, there’s no doubt that some jobs are greener than others – or that a steady stream of greenbacks is flowing toward them.

River Design Group is a case in point. Most of its work falls into three categories: fish passage improvement, channel restoration and dam removal.

In other words, the company’s entire business model is built around repairing natural waterways impacted by human activity.

“People support restoration,” Wright said. “They realize the benefits clean water provides, whether it’s fish or recreation. They realize it’s a valuable resource and worth protecting.”

Funding for the work comes from a variety of sources. The Gold Ray Dam removal project, for instance, is being financed by federal stimulus money.

Another frequent funding partner is the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board, which funnels a share of state lottery money toward projects that improve water quality for fish and people. Since its creation in the late 1990s, OWEB has disbursed close to $200 million in grants around the state, including about $5.7 million each to Linn and Benton County.

Now another wave of money could be flooding into the region. OWEB has proposed $40 million worth of watershed restoration projects statewide for state and federal stimulus grants.

If that money comes through, recent research suggests it will have a significant multiplier effect, both in terms of job creation and broad economic impact.

A preliminary study by the University of Oregon’s Ecosystem Workforce Program predicts the proposed $40 million investment would “create or retain nearly 600 jobs and generate over $72 million in total economic activity in Oregon.”

With matching funds from other sources, it could be expected to generate or preserve an additional 570 to 885 jobs and spark $71 million to $110 million in additional economic activity, the study says.

New traditionalists

Other mid-valley companies are deeply entrenched in fields that were green long before the term came into vogue.

Cascade Earth Sciences has been in business for 33 years and today employs about 50 people nationwide, including 14 in its Albany headquarters. While the environmental and engineering consulting firm has been involved in dam removal, wetland mitigation and other politically trendy projects, its bread and butter is more traditional work such as wastewater treatment.

“Our real specialty is in water reuse and conservation,” said Steel Maloney, the company’s president. “It’s not new to us, but it’s the popular conversation lately.”

Old and new frequently intersect for Cascade Earth Sciences, notably in site-specific water reclamation systems for food processing plants. By taking advantage of soil chemistry and other factors, the company can design a customized system to recover water used to clean vegetables for reuse in irrigation.

In many cases, Maloney said, this approach can eliminate the need for chemical wastewater treatment while cutting energy consumption, conserving irrigation water and avoiding impacts to streams.

“These are not small flows. We’re talking over a million gallons a day,” Maloney said.

“We can save enough water from a large industrial site to serve 1,000 homes.”

Career options

There’s no shortage of job-seekers positioning themselves for careers in the new green economy.

One measure of the level of interest is a partnership between Columbia Gorge and Linn-Benton community colleges to train maintenance and repair workers for the burgeoning wind power industry. At LBCC, 38 students are currently enrolled in the first-year program.

Another 12 are learning to work on energy-efficient air-handling systems at the Albany campus, while the water and wastewater technician program has 40 students. And a project to help design a new kind of digester to produce biofuels from seed crop waste could lead to another training program.

Still, Fred Haynes, the dean of instructional facilities planning for LBCC, remains something of a skeptic.

“Ah, the elusive green jobs,” Haynes said.

“I use that word because I think it’s a little bit of a stretch right now. I think in a lot of cases it’s a redefinition of what we do. I think it’s a bit of a fad.”

Numbers game?

To some extent, at least, the economists agree. While there are certainly cases where the green economy is creating genuinely new jobs, more often it appears to be shifting work from old purposes to new ones.

That’s better than no work at all, of course, but is there really any net economic gain to be had here?

“That is the $64,000 question,” said the Employment Department’s Summers.

“It may just be a change in business practices rather than a whole new series of jobs.”

And what about those growth projections of 14 percent over a two-year period? It will certainly be nice if it happens, but don’t expect green jobs to save the economy all by themselves.

“Any industry would like to grow that fast, but it’s only 7,400 jobs,” noted Nick Beleiciks, a senior analyst with the Employment Department and project coordinator of the green jobs report.

“Keep in mind, with the recession we’ve lost more than 100,000 jobs. I don’t know if green jobs can make up for that.”

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