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Green Building News

In Search of the ‘Green Economy’

The ‘green economy’ is hard to define and assess, but there’s enough data to indicate it is having positive effects on employment and the environment

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Green jobs overview. The circles on this map represent the number of green jobs in 100 metro areas in the aggregate green economy, based on jobs data for 2010.
Image Credit: Brookings Metro and Battelle Technology Partnership Program
Green jobs overview. The circles on this map represent the number of green jobs in 100 metro areas in the aggregate green economy, based on jobs data for 2010.
Image Credit: Brookings Metro and Battelle Technology Partnership Program
In 2010, 2.7 million jobs in the United States directly contributed to the production of goods and services that had an environmental benefit. The jobs were spread over 57,501 different establishments in 41,185 companies and existed in almost every industry. Enterprises focused on energy-saving building materials, HVAC and building control systems, and green architecture and construction services rank among the top four job creators in the “Energy and Resource Efficiency” category identified by the study.

The green economy is much bigger and more pervasive than many of us might realize. However, accurately measuring its reach and workforce, or even just accurately defining it, is proving tricky.

That’s at the heart of the disclaimer offered by the Brookings Institution and the Battelle Technology Partnership Practice in a summary of their recently published collaborative study, “Sizing the Economy: A National and Regional Green Jobs Assessment.” As the study’s authors explain, there are a lot of people out there doing green jobs, some in industries not particularly green, some in businesses with distinctly low-carbon, environmentally friendly missions. And because the overall economy has at least partially subsumed the green economy, it is hard to accurately analyze its prospects for further growth.

Clean highlights

“The clean economy has remained elusive in part because, in the absence of standard definitions and data, strikingly little is known about its nature, size, and growth at the critical regional level,” the authors observed.

Still, they gave it a good shot. Their 65-page report covers “clean economy” employment and enterprise from 2003 through 2010 in every county in the U.S. Its aim is to present a detailed enough picture of the “low-carbon and environmental goods and services ‘super-sector’” to help federal, state, and local agencies address problems that might be slowing the growth of the clean economy. The authors developed an interactive map summarizing some of the study’s results: http://www.brookings.edu/metro/Clean_Economy/Map.aspx#/?ind=1&geo=2&vis=0&dt=1&z=0&x=0&y=0

And in their executive summary of the report, the authors also highlighted several key findings:

  • The clean economy employs some 2.7 million workers in a variety of industries. It employs more people than the fossil fuel industry and more than bioscience, but is smaller than the information-technology sector.
  • The report says that the clean economy grew more slowly in aggregate than the national economy between 2003 and 2010, but it also noted that jobs grew explosively in newer clean technology segments. The green jobs sector might have grown much more were it not for cutbacks in the housing and building industries. Still, the green economy added about 500,000 jobs between 2003 and 2010, but it grew faster than the overall economy during the recession.
  • About 26% of all clean economy jobs are in manufacturing, and only 9% are in the broader economy. Clean economy businesses also are big exporters: “On a per job basis, establishments in the clean economy export roughly twice the value of a typical U.S. job ($20,000 versus $10,000). The electric vehicles (EV), green chemical products, and lighting segments are all especially manufacturing intensive, while biofuels, green chemicals, and EV industries are highly export intensive.”
  • The clean economy offers more opportunities and better pay for low- and middle-skilled workers than does the national economy as a whole. Median wages in the clean economy for these workers are 13% higher than median U.S. wages.
  • All metro areas have some type of green-economy activity, although certain types seem dominant in certain metros. New York’s mass transit industries embody a service orientation, for example. Architectural services are big in Las Vegas while professional services are big in San Francisco. Metros in the Midwest tend to focus on manufacturing. Metros such Atlanta, Salt Lake City, Los Angeles, and Portland, Oregon, have diversified green economies.
  • A metro’s green economy tends to grow faster when green enterprises cluster geographically close together. Proximity boosts the green-business growth rate by about 1.4% over the growth rate among businesses that are geographically isolated, the study found.

The A-Team in Albany

Believe it or not, the metro with the country’s highest concentration of clean jobs is Albany-Schenectady-Troy, in upstate New York, according to the study. The clean economy accounts for almost 1 in 15 Albany area workers—more than 28,000 people—with General Electric and the state government propelling a lot of the activity.

GE’s global renewable energy headquarters, its power and water division headquarters, and a wind and water turbine manufacturing facility are located in Schenectady (which also happens to be the company’s birthplace). Public sector activity, in areas such as regulation compliance and conservation, accounts for another 10,500 jobs. What’s more, the Albany area is home to more than 4,000 scientists and engineers, and more than 6,000 manufacturing workers, in green economy services and research.

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