Opinion

Producing Clean Energy and Providing Good Jobs

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A sun that shines more than 300 days a year and breezes humming from the peaks to the plains hallmark Colorado's seasons — and thanks to new technologies they now signal job growth in our state. But Colorado's leaders, at the state and federal level, must push for smart energy policies if we're to maintain our edge.

In September, Colorado's unemployment rate stood at 7 percent, better than the national average of more than 10 percent but still a difficult job market. The recession's pain didn't spread evenly to all industries, though — because one sector has and continues to promise a bright future for people across Colorado.

Between 1998 and 2007, jobs in Colorado's clean energy economy grew more than twice as fast as overall jobs during the same period, according to the study compiled by the Pew Charitable Trusts.

The first-ever hard count of the actual companies and venture capital investments that supply environmentally friendly jobs and services, the Pew report found that America's clean energy economy is poised for explosive growth. Nationally, jobs in the emerging clean energy economy grew nearly two and a half times faster than overall jobs between 1998 and 2007 — a trend that Colorado's economy has also followed.

In 2007, there were nearly 17,000 jobs — equal to the entire population of Golden — in the state's clean energy economy. These are good-paying jobs for people of all skill levels and educational backgrounds — construction workers, marketing consultants, engineers and many others — with annual incomes ranging from $21,000 to $111,000.

This rapid growth caught the attention of investors and financiers around America. In 2008, investors directed $5.9 billion into American businesses in the clean energy economy.

Many Colorado leaders understand the potential for green economy jobs, and have worked to create a business climate for new initiatives to thrive. In 2004, Colorado voters boosted the clean energy economy by approving a measure requiring investor-owned utilities to buy 20 percent of their electricity by 2020, with co-ops and municipal utilities required to supply smaller percentages of renewable energy. More recently, the state government set out to reduce its own energy use by 20 percent, including cutting consumption of paper, water and fuel usage.

The policies in turn encouraged both entrepreneurs and large companies to start up or relocate to Colorado. Abound Solar (formerly AVA Solar) is just one of the clean energy businesses that hung out the "help wanted" sign; other solar firms include Namaste Solar Electric Inc., BrightPhase Energy, and Abengoa Solar Inc. REpower USA Corporation, a subsidiary of Germany-headquartered wind energy manufacturer REpower Systems AG, relocated its corporate headquarters to Denver. Vestas chose Colorado to assemble its wind turbines, bringing with it supplier Hexcel Corp. Additionally, Xcel Energy and SunPower Corp. have agreed to build North America's second-largest high-efficiency photovoltaic solar plant in the San Luis Valley, bringing jobs to one of the poorest rural areas in Colorado.

Of course, Colorado is also home to the U.S. Department of Energy's National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), the nation's primary laboratory for renewable energy and energy efficiency research and development. The University of Colorado, University of Denver, and Colorado State University also provide important research — and a supply of future skilled workers for the clean energy economy.

But Colorado can't rest on its laurels, because other countries have outpaced the United States regarding clean energy — and the jobs that come with that innovation.

At the state level, additional incentives and policies have proven to be important. But we have only scratched the surface of green job development, and more effort is needed to spur potential job growth in Colorado's clean energy economy.

Action must be taken on a national level as well. Most notably, Congress and the Obama administration must work together to produce energy and global warming legislation that creates jobs, enhances energy independence and sustains our environment.

Investing in the clean energy economy pays off. We have the chance now to choose policies and incentives that could provide thousands of people across Colorado with good-paying jobs, while at the same time protecting the planet.