Buildings that Act Like Guinea Pigs for Energy Efficiency: The Puget Sound Regional Council Plan for Green Jobs

Everyone is looking for the next big thing during an economic downturn, whether it be individuals searching for ways to reinvent their careers after lags and layoffs, or whole regions needing to rebuild their economies.

This region has a history as a technology and innovation hub, which has translated in the past to jobs—lots of them—primarily in software, engineering, and development. But what Microsoft’s 50,000-person campus can bring, Boeing’s layoffs can take away. With technology trends changing so fast, the Northwest, like any other region, is competing for ways to stay relevant and grow its economy and job base.

Considering the Northwest’s strengths in the tech sector, and the surging interest in clean energy, it seems the region is perfectly primed to become a leader in clean technology. All it needs is a little support to push it along. At least that’s the thinking from the folks at the Puget Sound Regional Council‘s economic development arm, the Prosperity Partnership, a coalition of more than 300 government, business, community, and labor organizations throughout King, Kitsap, Pierce, and Snohomish counties.

After extensive research, the Prosperity Partnership determined that cleantech—and specifically, energy efficiency—could be an economic driver for the future. And after a year of planning, the group devised a strategic business plan that it hopes will help establish the central Puget Sound region as a global leader in clean research, technology, and innovation. The result was the Building Energy-Efficiency Testing and Integration Center and Demonstration Network, or the BETI Center for short.

When the PSRC started the Prosperity Partnership in 2005, one of the first things the team did was look at the region’s economic foundation.

“We have one of the more diverse economies in the country—there are over a dozen industry clusters that are at or above the national average in terms of employment concentration,” says economic development program manager Eric Schinfeld.

The central Puget Sound's key industry clusters, courtesy of the Prosperity Partnership.

The central Puget Sound's key industry clusters, courtesy of the Prosperity Partnership.

The five industry clusters that were really driving jobs and growth, however, were information technology, life sciences, logistics and international trade, aerospace, and finally, cleantech. Of the lot, cleantech was the least mature sector—and the one with the most promise for igniting growth.

One of the first things the Prosperity Partnership did in this sector was help found the Washington Clean Technology Association (WCTA) back in 2007, which “hopefully will become the leading trade organization in the state for cleantech,” Schinfeld says.

In fall 2009 the group put together a hard report on cleantech. It found that of the 24,000 jobs identified in the regional cleantech industry, about 40 percent were within the energy efficiency sector, which Schinfeld says obviously drew on the area’s strong software and computer expertise. And within this energy efficiency cluster, Schinfeld says there were two areas the Prosperity Partnership got really excited about.

“One was, of course, the green building architecture, construction, and engineering world, which we’re already really strong in,” he says, citing firms like Mithun and Sellen, among others. “Not as strong, but a big potential, we think, is the energy demand management—the IT and software piece—where building energy use can be controlled and monitored…With the incredible strength in IT that our region is known for, it seems like a huge potential for us.”

At around this time the Brookings Institution approached the Prosperity Partnership about getting involved with a big new idea that involved creating metropolitan business plans. “It’s a pretty straight-forward idea,” says Schinfeld. “The idea is: Can you plan your economy using the discipline of a business plan? They wanted to test it out.”

The central Puget Sound region joined the metropolitan areas of Cleveland and the Twin Cities to become test dummies for this regional economic pilot project. And although the region already has a number of well-established industries, Schinfeld says energy efficiency was the one his group focused on as offering the greatest opportunity for expansion.

“For a pilot project you’re not going to be able to write a business plan for everything, so we chose energy efficiency, and growing the energy efficiency cluster,” he says. “It came back to, we’ve … Next Page »

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