The Color of Money

For Portland to create a major green economy, we’ll need an influx of bucks and brains.

With Brian Barker May 19, 2009 Published in the February 2009 issue of Portland Monthly

When wind-power giant Vestas recently announced it might expand its Portland-based North American headquarters—adding some 850 jobs to the beleaguered economy—the city seemed on track to become an epicenter of green industry. Portland already is considered a major eco hub, thanks in large part to our bike-riding, recycling citizens, a few big-name green building firms, and a trove of smallish businesses like Hopworks Urban Brewery and Nau, which factor sustainable practices into their bottom line.

But much as we love sipping organic brew and slipping on our recycled raincoats, relying on a green reputation won’t be enough to keep building that great green economy in the sky. As the green-energy industry booms (last year taking in about $80 billion worldwide), cities from Philadelphia to Phoenix are looking to scoop up part of the pot. “We can’t just rest on our laurels,” says Ron Pernick, a Portlander and coauthor of The Clean Tech Revolution .

In order for Portland to ascend to its (rightful) throne as king of green industry, the city must overcome, most urgently, a shortage of minds and money, according to Pernick. Brad Zenger, managing director of Pivotal Investments, Portland’s only venture capital firm focused solely on sustainability projects, agrees. “There’s clearly a dearth of capital here,” Zenger says; this means it’s more difficult for the little guy with a great idea to get a leg up. Plus, while established big-green businesses aren’t looking for venture capital, a climate of strong venture capital ensures a continuing flow of innovative start-ups.

While we can’t yet compete with places like Silicon Valley, which lobbed more than $1 billion at green-leaning start-up companies last year, we have incentive policies like the Business Energy Tax Credit, which allows companies to reclaim as much as 50 percent of capital expenses on renewable-resource projects.

Still, just as it takes big wind to move Vestas’s turbines, it takes big brains to power the company itself. Businesses in a tech-heavy green economy want a highly educated workforce from top-notch research institutions, according to a 2008 report by Clean Edge Inc, a sustainable-energy research and publishing firm cofounded by Pernick. When Vestas sought a headquarters for its research and development center in 2007, the company blew off Portland in favor of Houston (yes, Houston, smog-choked skies and all), which has the University of Houston, Texas A&M, and the University of Texas all in close proximity. Portland’s only large university is Portland State.

“The wind and solar companies that are already located here are still struggling to find qualified applicants despite high unemployment,” says Angus Duncan, president of Bonneville Environmental Foundation, a nonprofit that helps market clean-energy technology to utility companies.

But all is by no means lost: while Portland might not be able to produce more minds, its colleges and universities can work to produce better minds.

For example, PSU president Wim Wiewel believes a recent $25 million grant from the Miller Foundation earmarked for sustainability research will improve the school’s green cred and help recruit high-caliber professors. (Oregon professors earn some of the lowest salaries in the country.)

Plus, PSU has joined the Oregon Institute of Technology, the University of Oregon, and Oregon State University in establishing the Oregon Built Environment & Sustainable Technologies Center (Oregon BEST), a consortium of academics and professionals focused on turning green research projects into cash through business opportunities.

These are relatively small measures, yes, but according to Duncan, ones that stand to keep Portland as a favored relocation destination for companies like Vestas— ahead of, say, Houston.

After all, Houston has never had much on Portland (except maybe football). We’d like to keep it that way.

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