Are WNC green jobs in the pipeline?

By January 12, 2010Uncategorized

Asheville Citizen-Times, by Dale Neal 1/12/2010 

Photo by Erin Brethauer  (

ASHEVILLE — As the national and regional economies struggle through the worst downturn since the Great Depression, Western North Carolina hopes to see green jobs sprouting up in the coming year.

Robert Price, Conservation Pros“There is a lot of promise, but the green jobs seem to be slow to take root,” said Carl Donovan of Conservation Pros, an Asheville-based company specializing in making homes more energy efficient.  “The business is certainly picking up, but I don’t see the jobs yet.”

That could change soon.

The federal stimulus package could provide $4.2 million to weatherize homes in four local counties over the next two years.

Another $1 million in stimulus has been awarded to Asheville and Buncombe County for weatherization and other energy efficiency efforts, but that money has yet to be spent as federal guidelines were worked out, said Maggie Ullman, the city’s energy coordinator.

In addition to weatherization, the region also hopes to build on strengths in solar energy and biofuels. The result could be the creation of more jobs in a much-touted but so far relatively small sector of the local economy.

A place to start

Western North Carolina has seen brutal declines in the number of manufacturing jobs since the 1990s, and that drop has continued during the current recession. The number of manufacturing jobs in the Asheville metropolitan statistical area — Buncombe, Haywood, Henderson and Madison counties — dropped from 20,600 in January 2008 to 18,000 in October, according to the N.C. Employment Security Commission.

And that’s just part of the region’s struggling employment situation. In November, the unemployment rate for the Asheville MSA was 8.6 percent, which meant that nearly 18,000 people were actively looking for jobs.

“I don’t know that we can say that green is the magic solution to bring back those jobs,” said Matt Raker, the new senior director of AdvantageGreen, an initiative to promote green industry from economic development group AdvantageWest. “But we do have a lot of opportunity to bring solar panel manufacturing and other components here.”

AdvantageWest sees potential in the Asheville area not only in local solar companies, but also in biofuel and weatherization. There’s also a potential workforce developing through Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College, which offers courses in green jobs.

The first step, though, is deciding which jobs count as green.

“A green job doesn’t mean we go out and hug trees every day,” Donovan said. As for the weatherization work his company does, Donovan said, “It’s hard work. It’s filthy stripping out old insulation from houses. It’s like any other construction job.”

Depending on which study you pay attention to, North Carolina already has somewhere between 6,500 and 63,000 green jobs, Raker said.

The North Carolina Employment Security Commission has gotten $1 million in grants to inventory the number of green jobs statewide. Similar efforts are under way locally through Land of Sky Regional Council, another regional economic development group.

Success to date

WNC can point to progress in the past year. FLS Energy, for example, has grown from three employees to 45, providing solar hot water systems for area businesses and hotels. FLS is also working on a solar farm on the old Canton landfill, which will generate enough electricity for about 1,100 homes.

Sundance Power Systems, based in Weaverville, saw a 50 percent increase in business with solar photovoltaic systems as well as wind turbines, said company founder Dave Hollister. Sundance hired about eight more full-time workers, boosting the staff to about 30.

“And I’d say we put about 50 to 60 people to work this year, when you count the electrical contractors and engineers and others,” Hollister said.

As the company begins to work on projects that will use federal stimulus money in 2010, Hollister expects that trend to continue. “This is a whole industry that we’re trying to create,” he said.

The year ahead

The $4.2 million in stimulus money will be used to weatherize homes in Buncombe, Madison, Transylvania and Henderson counties.

Community Action Opportunities, the local nonprofit that administers federal weatherization funds, will coordinate efforts to update homes with insulation, more efficient furnaces and other upgrades.

The group generally takes applications from elderly and disabled residents and families who make up to 150 percent of the federal poverty level, or about $16,000 a year for an individual or $33,000 for a family of four.

In addition, the city of Asheville has received $804,700 from an Energy Efficiency Conservation block grant, to be spent in the next year, Ullman said. Buncombe County received about $124,000 in stimulus money for energy efficiency.

Under federal guidelines, that money could generate 15 or so new jobs. Local officials and people in the industry hope that’s just the start.

In the coming year, Raker sees the potential for a few hundred green jobs in weatherization, solar and wind power and other energy efficiency sectors across North Carolina’s 23 western counties.

Weatherization efforts financed with federal stimulus funds are still expected to pump new energy into the economy in 2010 while saving energy costs for a number of residents.

Community Action Opportunities has already completed 50 homes this year, with 83 in progress and 250 more on the list, said Ben Watts, the nonprofit’s director of economic development.

By the end of next year, 459 homes could be weatherized in Buncombe, Madison, Henderson and Transylvania counties, up from the 100 or so the nonprofit typically renovates in most years, Watts said.

“We’ve added about 12 jobs and there are more to come,” Watts said. “We’re also contracting with more electricians and plumbers, and buying Energy-Star appliances at the local Home Depot, Lowe’s and Sears — so all that money trickles into the economy.”




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