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Jon Knutson, Published September 06 2009

States in position to benefit from growth of green economy

America’s work force is going green.

Growing focus on environmentally friendly practices and products is increasing demand for green jobs, both nationally and regionally.

One measure of that: Jobs in the “clean energy economy” rose

9.1 percent nationwide from 1998 to 2007, with the number of traditional jobs rising 3.7 percent in the same period, according to a study released this summer by The Pew Charitable Trusts.

Transitioning to a clean-energy economy would create about 4,000 new jobs in North Dakota and about 30,000 new jobs in Minnesota, a study by the Center for American Progress, a think-tank in Washington, D.C., shows.

Don’t expect the trend to change anytime soon.

President Barack Obama wants to create millions of what he calls “green collar jobs.” He’s backing that up with $60 billion in federal money earmarked for “clean energy investments.”

This region is in great position to benefit, said one green business leader.

“The green economy presents us with the biggest economic opportunity of our lifetime for both Minnesota and North Dakota,” said Lois Quam, CEO of Tysvar, a St. Paul-based business incubator dedicated to cultivating green economy business opportunities.

Green-focused initiatives provide a broad opportunity for producing rural jobs in wind, solar, geo-thermal, biomass and biofuel production, she said.

That’s especially true in Minnesota and North Dakota, states that have invested heavily in education, from public high schools to research universities, and in building high-value industries, Quam said.

The green initiative is definitely moving ahead, she said.

“Things kind of have a way of taking off. I think that’s where we are now,” Quam said.

Area colleges are responding to the developing green economy.

North Dakota has an increasing number of green-themed courses and programs, officials with the state university system say.

A few examples:

  • Dakota College at Bottineau offers an environmental technology program. Five students are enrolled.

  • The State College of Science in Wahpeton offers instruction in biofuels. Twelve students are enrolled.

  • North Dakota State University offers natural resource management. A class in natural resources-agro ecosystems typically has 60 to 70 students.

  • The University of North Dakota has a program in earth system science and policy. The preliminary enrollment count this year is 18 to 20 students.

    Nine colleges in the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system will begin a two-year degree program this fall that prepares students to work in the renewable energy or traditional energy industries.

    None of the nine colleges are in western Minnesota.

    The new associate degree program, believed to be the first of its kind in the nation, is funded with a $1 million federal grant.

    Elusive definition

    Don’t strain your brain trying to figure out what is a green job and what isn’t.

    “There is actually no standard that defines a ‘green job’ and depending on who you ask or where you go, you’ll get different answers,” said Michael Fritsch, a close observer of the developing green economy.

    He’s president and chief operating officer of Austin, Texas-based Confoe, which works to improve the operating efficiency of renewable energy companies.

    “Most of the answers (about what a green job is) will focus on energy conservation and renewable energy production, transmission and storage. Some answers will focus on reduction of carbon usage,” Fritsch said.

    In the Pew study released this summer, the “clean energy economy” was defined as generating jobs, businesses and investments while expanding clean-energy production, increasing energy efficiency, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, waste and pollution, and conserving water and other natural resources.

    Some green jobs will involve alternative energy – installing solar panels or working in biomass plants, for instance, Fritsch said.

    But many new green jobs will be created in established fields, he said.

    Public transportation is a good example.

    A conference set for Thursday in Fargo will bring together experts from across the country to exchange ideas and develop strategies to address the growing need for and leaders in public transportation.

    New public transportation jobs, even though they’re in an established field, are considered green by green economy advocates.

    Public transportation is “poised for dramatic growth,” in part because environmentally conscious people often want to make greater use of public transportation, said Jill Hough, director of the Small Urban and Rural Transit Center, a co-sponsor of the conference.

    The center is a program of the Upper Great Plains Transportation Institute at NDSU.

    What about fossil fuels?

    A commonly asked question is whether a growing green economy will hurt the fossil fuels industry.

    The question is particularly important in North Dakota.

    Fossil fuels are a key to the state’s economy. Last year, North Dakota produced a record 62.8 million barrels of oil.

    North Dakota produced 29.7 million tons of coal in 2008, according to U.S. Department of Energy figures. The state typically ranks in the top 10 in coal production.

    But alternative energy, including wind and biomass, also hold great potential in the state.

    For instance, North Dakota ranks first nationally in wind energy potential, according to the American Wind Energy Association.

    Minnesota comes in ninth.

    North Dakota Commerce Commissioner Shane Goettle said it’s essential for all sectors of the state’s economy to continue growing.

    He’s confident both fossil fuels and alternative energy can grow and thrive in the state.

    The Commerce Department doesn’t have a study or data on how employment in the state might be affected by green jobs, a department spokeswoman said.

    Fritsch said alternative energy in Texas is growing without hurting the state’s fossil fuel industry.

    Going green makes sense, even if you aren’t concerned with the environment, he said.

    “Increasing energy efficiency and increasing our energy supplies makes the economy less dependent on energy price shocks and helps fuel economic growth,” he said.

    For examples of going green, see the attached stories.

    Readers can reach Forum reporter Jonathan Knutson at (701) 241-5530