16 October 2009

BuildGreen Philly: Prosperity with Sustainability

"No matter how well we develop renewable energy sources, we will not be able to meet global demand," Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell said to the crowd gathered at BuildGreen09 in Philadelphia in his opening keynote. "We also need to reduce consumption."

Rendell is a governor that gets it. He understands the economic realities that will drive energy consumption in the future and about a realistic response that includes all sources (including coal and nuclear), as long as can be made clean and with reduced risk. (For coal, he encourages development of carbon capture and storage technologies, to make it cleaner.)

While Rendell gets the economic side, he also understands the limits and boundaries as well. It's not just about finite resources, according to the Governor, but about demand, which will increase as the population increases globally and as economies in developing countries improve and people prosper.

Prosperity with sustainability was the tenor of the two day conference at Philadelphia's Sheraton Center City Hotel (a decidedly unsustainable venue, I might add).

As Dr. Dayna Baumeister, co-founder of the Biomimicry Guild, noted in her fantastic presentation over lunch on Thursday, it is "about learning to live and build on a dynamic, non-equilibrium, water-based, boundaried world." And not only to survive, but to thrive.

Others echoed these sentiments and highlighted the economic opportunity that presents itself right now and that is only at the beginning.

Dennis Yablonsky of the Allegheny Conference on Community Development and former secretary of the PA Department of Community and Economic Development, cited a recent study indicating there is a $30-40B market in green building, which potentially grows to $200B if you add retrofitting of existing infrastructure.

Companies all across the state are being created while older companies are reinventing themselves around the green economy, Yablonsky noted.

There was evidence of this in the panel discussions, especially around product development and research. There you could find companies such as Armstrong, which started as a cork-cutting shop in 1860, as well as new initiatives such as the team of professors from Philadelphia University who are developing construction materials from alkali-activated fly ash, a waste product of the coal industry.

Green jobs were also on the agenda at BuildGreen, with a focus on economic empowerment and the shortage of skilled and unskilled labor the new green economy requires. Education and training are needed, as well as a clear definition of what qualifies as a green job.

Awareness of the existing opportunities is also needed, however, as was made apparent by Mr. Yablonsky's revelation that there are currently 30,000 "green jobs" posted on an online job bank for Southwestern PA. The jobs range from entry level positions to $100K+ executive roles; that's a lot of job openings in an economy that needs employment. Why are these positions not being filled?

Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter also addressed the conference, repeating his pledge to make Philadelphia the Greenest City in America. His plan includes goals to reduce city energy consumption by 30 percent and energy costs by 10 percent, representing savings of over $3 million in a city budget that needs every extra penny.

Philadelphia is not alone in trying to glean benefits from the new green economy. Micah Kotch, from the New York City Accelerator for a Clean & Renewable Economy, an incubator initiative of NYU-Poly aimed at stimulating invention, innovation, and entrepreneurship in New York.

"Our goal is to grow an ecosystem of entrepreneurs, companies and local businesses around clean tech and renewable innovations," said Mr. Kotch.

One of their companies is Rentricity, which captures energy from water pressure reduction -- common to any municipal water distribution system -- to spin turbines and create clean electricity.

BuildGreen was convened by the Pennsylvania Green Growth Partnership and hosted by the Delaware Valley Green Building Council, which plans to host the international GreenBuild conference and expo in 2012.

My three takeaways from BuildGreen09:

1.) The transformation of the building sector to adopting green practices is both a great step forward and a great opportunity -- and other sectors, such as financial services, must now follow.
2.) The convergence of talent, resources, and infrastructure in the region is well-positioned to own a significant piece of the new green economy pie, but it still needs to foster and build the financing, commercialization, and innovation opportunities to seize the day.
3.) Biomimicry -- the conscious emulation of nature's design solutions -- is an increasing opportunity for innovation that can lead to sustainable products, companies, and services -- and a better way of life. If only we can "quiet our cleverness," as Dr. Baumeister put it.

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