Idling Green Economy Needs to Find First Gear

By SARAH SCHUMANN/ecoRI News contributor

Many Rhode Islanders hope that the tenet “green means go” will hold true for the state’s dragging economy. But pressing the accelerator on a nascent green economy has so far proven challenging.

“We’ve been hearing that the green economy is going to create so many jobs, but it’s not really done that yet,” said Jeff Polucha, head of the Green Technology Consortium, a Governor’s Workforce Board business partnership focused on spurring green jobs in the state.

As green-jobs-training programs begin to produce a steady stream of skilled and energetic workers, finding a formula to fuel green economic growth becomes all the more urgent.

The barriers to green economic development, said Connie McGreavy, director of the Rhode Island chapter of the U.S. Green Building Council, “fall into three distinct, but related buckets: finance, knowledge and behavior.”

Other leaders in Rhode Island’s green economy point to complex interconnections between the three.

Take energy efficiency, the field that most green-jobs-training programs graduates are poised to enter, said Andrew Cortes, director of Building Futures R.I.’s Energy Training Partnership. The primary problem, he said, is not a lack of funding for green initiatives, but the difficulties employers face in accessing existing funding to fuel job growth.

Refering to state and federal aid for home-energy-efficiency improvements, Cortes lamented that despite “the massive influx of dollars, it is a very difficult delivery system, and it’s hard to achieve impacts at scale.”

“Some of our students have been very frustrated,” said Mark Kravatz of the Apeiron Institute, which conducts energy-auditing classes. “You would think that with all these millions of dollars coming down for weatherization, that there would be more opportunity to get this off the ground.”

For homeowners, there are two streams of weatherization funding available. Low-income homes are eligible for the Weatherization Assistance Program, which distributes money from the U.S. Department of Energy through the Rhode Island Office of Energy Resources. All ratepayers are eligible for free energy audits and weatherization incentives through National Grid’s Energy Wise program.

The problem with Weatherization Assistance Program opportunities, Kravatz said, is that “the bureaucratic process for getting on the contractor list is very private and very difficult. As a result, the pace is not there.”

The problem with the Energy Wise program, he added, is that “for the past 25 years, they’ve had the same vendor (RISE Engineering) providing that service. When you have one company that has a contract, they don’t have to educate consumers about the beneifts of energy efficiency.”

The solution, accoring to Kravatz, is to allow weatherization providers to compete directly for those jobs. “Creating a competition swell,” he said, “will catalyze that market.”

But targeting individual homes is a relatively slow way to generate jobs, Cortes noted. The next step, he said, is to think about, “How do you bundle these into a package of 250 units at one shot? That’s where you’re starting to create some broader impacts.”

Another area with high job potential, Cortes said, is the greening of existing buildings. Our current buildings, he noted, "are the absolute worst offenders in terms of carbon footprint. They consume a lot of energy and they waste a high percentage of it.”

McGreavy, whose organization was instrumental in pushing the state to pass the Rhode Island Green Buildings Act requiring all new public buildings more than 5,000 square feet and all renovated public buildings more than 10,000 square feet to be built to the LEED standard for green design, said the state could speed things up if it looked toward established models for promoting a green economy.

"While the state has undertaken various unscientific attempts to create a roadmap for itself,” she said, “a four-year, data-driven analysis undertaken by the World Business Council for Sustainable Development already exists, at least in terms of addressing energy efficiency in buildings — oft referred to as the low hanging fruit. Why aren't we plucking it?”

These comments echo a common theme among green-industry proponents in Rhode Island: workers are prepared; financing is available; and opportunities for improving green practices in the state are clear.

There’s a green light at the end of the tunnel, and it’s time to get moving.