Green boom echoes tech boom in Colorado
Picture this scenario: Colorado is situated perfectly to capitalize on a burgeoning industry and the governor is aggressively promoting expansion.The state’s chief executive has even hosted annual conferences to promote the industry and established an office to foster its growth.Sound familiar? It should, because it’s played out during the terms of both Gov. Bill Ritter, who has embraced alternative energy, and his predecessor, former Gov. Bill Owens, who held office from 1999 to 2006 and pushed high technology.Amid the tech boom, Owens worked to turn Colorado into “Silicon Mountain.” Today, Ritter is trumpeting the state’s “new-energy economy.”High-tech jobs vs. green jobs.Fiber-optic networks and high- speed Internet vs. solar panels and wind turbines.”Both of them inherited a horse to ride,” said Tom Clark, executive vice president of the Metro Denver Economic Development Corp. “Owens did all the right stuff and got caught up in a global tidal wave. We’ll see where Ritter ends up.”Ritter has positioned Colorado among the leaders in new energy, recruiting the likes of wind-power firm Renewable Energy Systems Americas to relocate its headquarters to the state, Clark said.The question is whether the new-energy economy is sustainable beyond Ritter’s tenure or whether it will suffer the same fate as Owens’ tech pursuit, which collapsed when the tech bubble burst in 2000.Competition to become the nation’s leading green-energy hub is vast, from Massachusetts to California.”There are a lot of cities in the U.S., numbering about 15, that are pushing their credentials to be centers of clean-tech innovation,” said Peter Bryant, president of Denver-based Trans Tech, a strategy and consulting firm focused on energy and clean tech.Although Colorado is rich in wind and sun resources, it lacks the venture capital of Silicon Valley, which is needed to cultivate an industry, Bryant said.Already, alternative energy projects such as a proposed ethanol plant in Grand Junction have stalled amid the economic recession and credit crunch, But observers say a bounce back is in the offing with help from the federal stimulus funds.Dot-coms’ steep downhillThe dot-com bust took the wind out of the state’s ballyhooed tech economy, which ranked No. 1 in the country in jobs per capita during much of Owens’ tenure. Colorado has shed more than 47,000 tech jobs since 2001, according to trade association AeA.”In those days, if you had a pair of Birkenstocks and a dog and a one-sheet business plan, somebody would fund you,” Clark said. “When the money fell away from all of those tech companies, there was not state money behind it to keep it afloat.”Many of Owens’ tech initiatives, such as the annual Technology Summit, were privately funded.Some of his successes remain, such as the Denver School of Science & Technology, which was launched with seed money from Bill Gates. The Microsoft co-founder made the pledge after meeting with Owens and his then-secretary of technology, Marc Holtzman, in December 1999.Owens’ flagship initiative was the privately funded Colorado Institute of Technology, which was intended to rival the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in terms of recruiting students and bolstering high-tech education. The program collapsed near the end of Owens’ tenure in 2006, a symbolic crumbling of Silicon Mountain dreams.Institutional backing is hereColorado’s green-energy economy is in a similar position to the high-tech economy during its heyday. It’s receiving national recognition and landing expansions from out-of-state companies.President Barack Obama’s decision to sign the economic stimulus bill in Denver this month was based, in part, on Colorado’s leadership position in renewable-energy research and manufacturing.Top research institutions in the state include the Golden-based National Renewable Energy Laboratory, Colorado School of Mines and Colorado State University.In 2007, the state established the Clean Energy Fund, which finances renewable-energy projects with revenue from gambling taxes.The money has helped spur projects that otherwise might not have taken off, such as Greeley’s effort to build a Clean Energy Park. The city last month received an $82,500 grant to study anaerobic digestion, which converts manure and other wastes into fuel. Such a biorefinery would anchor the park.Bruce Biggi, Greeley’s economic development manager, said the grant was key to pushing forward with the project.”With little money or little resource, you expand the timeline, and sometimes the risk associated with that is, you either miss the technical or economic window, or it just dies from boredom,” Biggi said.Tied to where it’s createdAlthough there are similarities between the tech- and green-energy fields, the latest boom is being driven by demand, said Tom Plant, director of Ritter’s Energy Office.”There is strong demand out there . . . for us to relieve ourselves of dependence on foreign oil,” Plant said. “For us to clean our emissions outputs. For us to engage a more distributed energy system to become more energy efficient.”The tech explosion was driven, in large part, by “innovation competition” to develop the next great application or service that leveraged the Internet. Because of that, an end was inevitable, Plant said.Clark said the key difference is geography.”If you’re going to be energy independent, or less energy dependent, that’s going to be done on a piece of ground,” Clark said. “If you’re going to be a tech company, that’s a global decision.”Renewable energy such as wind and solar power has to be produced near the area it serves, as well as near the manufacturing of components such as the massive blades for wind farms.”We are going to have diverse fuel sources and they’re going to have to be produced as a commodity, not imported like a television,” Clark said.”A state who’s ahead of all that, I think, is in a very strong position not to be caught up and suffer the consequences that we did in technology that knew no geography.”
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