Brookings Institution study highlights local area’s cleantech scene
By Alicia Wallace, Camera Business Writer
Posted: 07/12/2011 10:00:00 PM MDT

Boulder County outpaces the nation in “clean” per capita job creation, exports, job concentration and wages, according to a report released today by the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program.

The nonprofit research organization’s “Sizing the Clean Economy: A National and Regional Green Jobs Assessment” is an analysis of the clean economies — a broad sector of more than three dozen environmentally friendly segments such as wind energy, waste management, photovoltaic, mass transit and regulation — of the 50 U.S. states and the 100 largest metro areas.

Although Boulder was not one of the largest metropolitan areas included in the study, Brookings officials provided a similarly focused clean-economy profile to the Camera because of the region’s “super” performance on key measures, officials said.

“Boulder is kind of a star … the export number is a signal that some very special things are happening,” said Mark Muro, senior fellow and policy director at the Metropolitan Policy Program at Brookings.

On average, each Boulder County clean-economy job produces $52,294 in exports, more than double the national clean job export average of $20,129.

Muro also highlighted Boulder County’s concentration of cleantech jobs. While 6.9 percent of the U.S. clean-economy jobs are classified as cleantech, half of Boulder County’s clean jobs fall into that category.

“That’s completely off the charts nationally,” Muro said. ” … It’s very concentrated, extremely concentrated in a whole bunch of some of the most exciting, emerging industries in the country.”

Boulder also has 50 times the average concentration of energy-saving consumer products, he said.

Among the other Boulder County-related findings:

Boulder County has 7,195 “clean” or “green” jobs that make up 4.5 percent of all jobs in the region. The concentration of clean jobs nationwide was 2 percent.

From 2003 to 2010, Boulder County added 3,536 clean jobs, growing at an annual pace of 10.1 percent. The United States’ clean economy grew at a 3.4 percent annual rate during that period.

The annual median wage of a clean job in Boulder is $53,871, as compared to $43,773 for the United States.

Boulder, however, has a substantially lower concentration of clean-economy jobs that Brookings officials defined as “green collar” — positions that pay mid-level wages and require mid-level skill.

While 50.5 percent of Boulder’s clean-energy jobs fell into the green-collar category, 67.7 percent of the nation’s clean jobs were green-collar — a finding highlighted by the report’s authors as an opportunity for economic benefit.

“The U.S. clean economy offers more opportunities and better pay for low- and middle-skilled workers than the national economy as a whole,” Brookings officials wrote in materials accompanying the report.

The nation’s clean economy, which employs about 2.7 million people, also faces some significant hurdles and could lose market share because of policy gaps, insufficient funding and a lacking innovation support system, Brookings officials said.

“Really, there’s a lot of flux at the national level,” Muro told the Camera.

Colorado’s state-level policies, programs and incentives — combined with the Front Range’s universities, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and the intellectual capital — have helped areas such as Boulder County become well-positioned, Muro said.

The 2004 passage of state Amendment 37, which set a renewable energy standard and provided incentives for solar installations, fueled Bozeman, Mont.-based Independent Power Systems to open its second branch in Boulder, said Steve Schoo, a spokesman for the Colorado operation.

But just as Amendment 37 brought a boon to the solar business, utility Xcel Energy’s actions earlier this year nearly brought the sector to its knees, he said. After announcing plans to cut its solar-incentive program by nearly 50 percent, Xcel eventually agreed to restructure those incentives.

The interim period, however, resulted in layoffs throughout Colorado’s solar firms, Schoo said.

“That actually put solar companies out of business and essentially threw everybody in a total state of uncertainty for about 30 days,” he said.

Noting the clean-energy industry still remains very vulnerable to broad-scale decisions by governments or utilities, Liz Hanson, the city of Boulder’s economic vitality coordinator, stressed the importance of public-private efforts.

The city of Boulder, Boulder Chamber and the Boulder Economic Council have worked to establish networking opportunities for clean-energy industry members, she said.

Those efforts combined with a history rooted in tech and research have helped to build and grow the clean energy “cluster,” she said.

“We have, for a long time, had a really strong high-tech hub,” she said. “And, over the last few years, what we’ve seen is that really evolving into a strong cleantech sector.”

The talent pool in Colorado’s tech community helped Boulder-based Tendril Networks grow at a pace of 10 new hires per month, spokeswoman Sheila O’Neill said in a prepared statement e-mailed to the Camera.

“A large part of Tendril’s success is a direct result of the talent, skill, knowledge and support of the Colorado technology community,” she said.

Contact Camera Business Writer Alicia Wallace at 303-473-1332 or [email protected]

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