Multiple Bay Area stakeholders meet on how to ‘green’ the local economy

More than 200 turned out Thursday for “Innovating the Green Economy,” a campus conference on how to turn an emerging and much celebrated “win-win” into actual businesses and real paychecks for local communities.

“Job creation is now on the front burner of government at all levels,” said Jennifer Wolch, dean of the College of Environmental Design, in opening remarks at the David Brower Center in downtown Berkeley. “This offers a major opportunity to thoughtfully, but swiftly, develop strategies designed to insure that a big chunk of those jobs are in the green economy.”

installing solar panels

With more federal stimulus dollars on the horizon — and a great deal of private capital poised for investment, according to conference speaker Marc van den Berg, a venture capitalist — there is keen interest in how local business, academia, and government can work together to create economic activity that reduces energy use and improves environmental quality. The conference, cosponsored by the U.S. Economic Development Administration and the campus’s Center for Community Innovation (CCI), drew a broad cross-section of stakeholders, from East Bay governments and non-profits, the Berkeley campus and national lab, and local green businesses.

Many in attendance are involved in the East Bay Green Corridor Partnership, a two-year-old public-private consortium working to bring green jobs to the East Bay region. That collaboration “started a conversation” between representatives of the Berkeley campus, Lawrence Berkeley National Lab, and participating municipalities, many of whom “hardly knew each other before,” says CCI Director Karen Chapple, an associate professor of city and regional planning and one of the conference organizers. Now, when campus innovators seek local space to set up shop, or city officials seek the counsel of Berkeley experts, “they all have each others cell-phone numbers.”

A number of panelists discussed, as an example of innovative, environmentally friendly public policy, the Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) program, a new financing model that got its start in the City of Berkeley, as a way to enable residents to install solar systems without crippling upfront costs. “Now many different cities have adopted it,” Chapple notes, not only for solar but for other energy-efficient technologies as well.

The university’s role in advancing the green economy was part of the day’s conversation. “We’re gearing up to address perhaps the greatest intellectual challenge in history, one with the highest stakes imaginable,” noted moderator Larry Rosenthal, director of the Berkeley Program on Housing and Policy, at a panel on the subject. “As we stake out the reformation of our economy and our very way of life, we look to the university for new leadership, for new inventions, and for a new kind of inspiration that might be sustained over the next generations of students.”

Michael Cohen, director of the campus’s Office of Technology Licensing described his office as a “one-stop shop,” that can help turn research and innovation into businesses in the community. Cohen cited a number of firms that have grown from campus research — among them Alameda-based Aurora Biofuels, which manufactures fuels from algae, and the San Franciso-based Good Guide, a consumers’ website on green products and services.

But the conference also provided a “reality check” for academics, Chapple noted — by highlighting political obstacles to bringing innovations to scale. Panelist Wade Crowfoot of the Environmental Protection Fund, for example, described the current conservative effort to suspend or eviscerate the California Global Warming Solutions Act, a 2006 law that has forced businesses to cap their emissions and made the state a leader in climate protection.

Clean energy and green jobs are very different from the digital revolution, notes Chapple. “IT was a consumer revolution offering the newest gadgets,” so people across the political spectrum willingly got on board. “But climate change and clean energy is politicized,” she said. “People in different parts of political spectrum have very different views.”

“A set of values that ties East Bay residents together” makes the East Bay Green Corridor “a natural,” she says. “Some of the greatest environmental start-ups come from the East Bay.”

But what about other, “redder” parts of California? Chapple says she was particularly struck by speaker Paul Johnson, executive director of the San Joaquin Valley Clean Energy Organization, who discussed some of his organization’s successes. “To think that we could do clean energy in the Valley just as in Berkeley” is encouraging, remarked Chapple. “It would be great if we can get environmental values into the more distressed part of the state.”

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