The nation's shift to solar, wind and other alternative energies is creating a green-collar work force.
A quarter of the nation's population will work in the emerging green economy – 40 million green-collar Americans by 2030, according to one estimate.
Predictions of a booming green-collar job sector are becoming increasingly common as volatile energy prices, concerns about global warming and economic instability beg for solutions.
Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama has made green jobs a cornerstone of his Democratic bid for the White House, predicting 5 million new green jobs through the development of plug-in electric cars, biofuels, renewables and clean-burning coal. Republican presidential candidate John McCain is promoting the construction of 45 nuclear power plants, and $2 billion a year toward developing clean-coal technology and renewable resources such as wind and solar.
“Right now, being environmentally friendly and energy efficient is still not always cost-efficient,” said Stephen Scott, president of Wake Technical Community College. “The question becomes: What will happen first? Will it become cost-effective to be sustainable, or will it become a biological necessity to be sustainable? One or the other will drive green jobs.”
Although North Carolina is a straggler in green energy compared with California and other states, proposed projects to meet the state's new renewable electricity requirements bring the promise of thousands of jobs.
The rise of green jobs reflects the growing emphasis on conservation and sustainability at major corporations, universities and nonprofit organizations, as well as government agencies.
Even before the state endorsed an alternative energy policy, scores of businesses had set up shop to feed green economies sprouting throughout the country. Along with solar installers and biofuels producers, many of these niche companies design electronics and components to streamline power grids, develop alternative fuels and boost energy efficiency.
Advocates in the state say green jobs will not only fight global warming but help revive North Carolina's ailing manufacturing sector and create a service industry of contractors and technicians who can't be outsourced to Mexico or Malaysia.
In anticipation of a need for green-job skills, state community colleges are including sustainable practices in architecture, construction, landscaping and other subjects in their curriculums. Nonprofit groups such as Advanced Energy and N.C. Solar Center say builders and contractors have been asking for sustainability seminars.
“Eventually it's the way everyone is going,” said Kim Kasdorf, 59, a former mechanical engineer who recently finished a program in architectural technology at Wake Tech Community College. “People who don't have that kind of experience are not going to be able to survive.”
What's a green collar?
The definition of green-collar job is still up for grabs, and some of the job growth projections strain credulity. Such jobs are a broad description, not a workforce classification, and there is some disagreement which jobs should qualify.
The N.C. Sustainable Energy Association estimates about 6,470 jobs in the state directly related to the development of energy efficiency or renewable sources. The trade group counts a diverse array of green jobs in manufacturing: solar panel components made by chemical giant DuPont in Fayetteville, solar cell connection wires from Torpedo Specialty Wire in Rocky Mount and fiberglass material for wind turbine blades from PPG Industries in Shelby.
Unlike some groups, the Raleigh trade association doesn't count secretaries, accountants, drivers and other generic employees who happen to work for a green business. Including tangential jobs shows broader economic benefits but distorts the size of the sector, said Paul Quinlan, who directs the N.C. Sustainable Energy Association's market research and development.
“The projections are great but they are all over the place,” Quinlan said. “The industry is very much in its infancy.”
And it's growing in fits and starts. After early hype for biofuels, initial enthusiasm has cooled for ethanol: The production of the plant-based fuel, touted as an ecological substitute for gasoline, has sputtered amid sharply rising corn prices. Several ethanol factories planned in North Carolina have been canceled or delayed.
Hard to ignore
Still, the green economy is becoming hard to ignore: Quinlan's association counts nearly 500 companies involved in renewables and efficiency in the state, mostly small businesses and niche companies.
The group expects the green sector to grow 24 percent this year and add thousands of new jobs by 2021. That's the year that Progress Energy and Duke Energy will be required to generate 12.5 percent of their electricity from a combination of renewable resources and efficiency savings.
The Center for American Progress this month projected 62,000 new green jobs in North Carolina in the coming decade, all tied to state and federal policies to promote a low-carbon economy.