Green Economy Holds Golden Opportunity for R.I.

By SARAH SCHUMANN/ecoRI News contributor

PROVIDENCE — Climate change, rising energy prices and an unemployment rate topping 11 percent might sound like a dismal combination, but in this mix of misfortune, some Rhode Islanders spot opportunity. Spurring development of renewable energy and green building techniques, some say, can make the state more sustainable, while at the same time providing a sorely needed lifeline to the state’s struggling workers.

“Rhode Island has lost tens of thousands of manufacturing jobs over the last thirty years,” said Keith Stokes, executive director of the Economic Development Corporation (EDC). “We see the green economy as a way of building a whole new manufacturing base.”

Last year, the EDC convened a roundtable to generate a roadmap for advancing the green economy. That process concluded that Rhode Island’s greatest green opportunities lie in wind power, green manufacturing, green building and green innovation.

Of those four sectors, offshore wind has become the poster child of the state's green economy. But according to Jeff Polucha, who chairs the Green Technology Consortium, a business partnership sponsored by the Governor’s Workforce Board, wind power alone will not heal Rhode Island's job woes.

“The wind industry is the pom-poms,” Polucha said, mixing a metaphor, “but the building trades are the meat and potatoes.”

Both sectors — renewable energy and energy efficiency — are the focus of job training programs around the state. From colleges to community organizations, such as the Apeiron Institure's Sustainable Business Group, these programs are preparing a workforce for jobs that will green the state.

As they chart a path to a thriving green economy, these groups are running into some questions. The most important one may be: What is a green economy?

Everybody has a different definition of green,” Polucha said. He offers the following examples. “A bus driver is driving a bus with diesel fuel. The next day he comes to work, and they put biodiesel in his vehicle. Do you see a green worker today, or is he still just a bus driver? Or how about the accountant who works in a green company. Is he a green worker?”

Echoing this difficulty, a green jobs skills gap study commissioned by Polucha’s Green Technology Consortium estimated current green jobs in Rhode Island at anywhere from 1,500 to 50,000, depending on how "green" is defined.

What the Green Technology Consortium and EDC approaches have in common is that they take a sector approach to the green economy, treating it as a subcomponent of a larger economy.

Others, such as Andrew Cortes, who runs Building Futures R.I.’s Energy Training Partnership for low-income residents, view a green economy "as more like an overlay. I view issues of sustainability as something that needs to be integrated into all sectors, rather than a specific sector that you can pull out of the economy.”

Mark Kravatz, of the aforementioned Apeiron Institute of Sustainable Living, which imparts energy efficiency trainings, suggests reframing the notion of green economy as a process. “It’s really about creating triple-bottom-line practices all the way up,” he said.

By way of analogy, Kravatz suggested that, “A green economy is our economy with a full facelift, instead of just a new chin.”

But catalyzing this process has proven challenging, giving rise to a "chicken-or-the-egg" scenario. Do we invest in training workers for a green economy, or jump-start the green job market and hope people will seek training in these areas?

The Green Technology Consortium’s skills gap study, completed last June, cautioned against training workers unless trainees have a fair chance at a job after graduating. But others argue that without a trained workforce, companies are less likely to initiate green projects.

“The debate is,” Kravatz said, “do we create a really educated workforce that’s going to push the envelope, or do we educate business owners (about the benefits of a green economy) and hope that they’re going to hire people once they’ve realized?” 

Individuals and organizations across Rhode Island are working toward both ends. If both tracks are successful, it's hoped that both the economy and the environment will benefit.