BY PETER BARNES
Since passing groundbreaking laws on urban growth and conservation in the 1970s, Oregon has earned a national reputation for its dense web of environmental-protection initiatives. Some 40 years later, the race is on to transform that eco-friendly image into a driving force in the 21st-century low-carbon economy.
The results, measured by job growth, investment, innovation and environmental impact, vary by sector. In transportation, Oregon has become a leader in electric-vehicle infrastructure and cycling. In construction and scientific research, it remains a fount of green-materials development and innovative design, although other states are fast catching up in terms of efficient building. Oregon utilities are meeting benchmarks for renewable power but face more challenging targets in the next decade. Meanwhile, the state’s green-tech manufacturing stands at an inflection point, successful in attracting companies to the state yet vulnerable to the rapid consolidation in solar and wind.
In Oregon the number of private-sector green jobs — defined by the Bureau of Labor Statistics as work that provides goods or services that benefit the environment or conserve natural resources — increased 22% from 2010 to 2011, accounting for nearly 50,000 positions across 10 sectors. That represents 3.7% of the state’s workforce: an indisputably small element that nonetheless helped catapult Oregon to the top of the “Clean Jobs Index” this year, a state ranking compiled by the Denver-based Ecotech Institute measuring retention and creation of green jobs.
Known for confronting environmental challenges early and aggressive pursuit of green businesses, Oregon likes to dash in front of the pack. Sometimes it trips over itself in the process — perhaps best evidenced by the spate of heavily subsidized solar companies that have cut jobs since the beginning of the year. Indeed, after spending $343 million in the past four fiscal years to finance energy conservation, renewable power and green development via the Business Energy Tax Credit (BETC), the state dissolved the program last year amid accusations that participants were splitting up projects to maximize their take.
Aiming to scale its green growth, limit environmental impacts and maintain a competitive edge in an era marked increasingly by austerity, Oregon and its standing in the green economy are best judged in the sectors where the state has invested the most: construction, transportation, manufacturing, utilities and research. Here is a snapshot of the accomplishments, the setbacks and the challenges ahead.