Valley's attractive for green industry

Region has natural benefits -- plenty of land and sun -- for clean energy.

October 15, 2010 

For years, the San Joaquin Valley has sat on the sidelines and watched as Southern and Northern California received most of the play from the state's economic engines -- the biotechnology and computer technology industries.

But in a few years, the San Joaquin Valley may be home to more than 100,000 new jobs -- all in service of clean energy technology, according to a study released Thursday by Dr. Shawn Kantor, a UC Merced economics professor.

Kantor's study focuses on the two "green" economic engines for the Central Valley, the California high-speed rail system and planned and pending-approval renewable energy projects.

Kantor studies economic development and what causes economic growth. He was approached by the California Business Alliance for a Green Economy to show the Valley would be affected by that growing sector, he said.

Citing the California High Speed Rail Authority, 24,000 jobs could be created with the construction of the rail system, according to Kantor's study, "The Economic Opportunity from Clean Energy Jobs in California's San Joaquin Valley."

Lee Boese, co-chairman of the greater Merced high speed rail committee, said the construction of the rail will bring clean air and jobs. "All things that the county is lacking," he said.

Post-construction, 1,500 ongoing jobs would be created at the heavy maintenance yard for the rail system, advocates maintain.

The location for the yard has yet to be determined, but communities throughout the Valley are lobbying for it to be built within their reaches.

Merced County Supervisor Deidre Kelsey said she hopes it comes to the former Castle Air Force Base in Merced County, but lately she's heard there's a lot of competition, mainly from Madera County.

"We do have a good package and the most competitive bid, but I've seen that go by the wayside when it comes to politics," she said.

The Kantor study also showed that 6.5 percent of the renewable energy projects in the state are produced in the Valley.

"If we were to assume that all current, approved, and pending projects within the state were all to come online instantly, then the San Joaquin Valley would constitute 10 percent of the renewable energy produced in the state," according to the study.

These renewable technology projects that have either been approved or are pending approval will generate 68,000 to almost 80,000 jobs throughout the Valley, said Kantor's report.

The majority of these projects use solar, biomass or wind as energy sources.

Merced has one biomass facility, but it's also home to UC Merced, which is a laboratory in itself for green technologies, Kantor added.

Kern and Tulare counties are home to most of the clean energy projects.

"If 24,000 jobs will be created in the San Joaquin Valley to build out the rail network in the region, the clean energy sector has the potential to increase employment in the region by 72,000," the report speculates.

Kelsey said even farmers are moving toward green technology. The Valley's geographic constraints make it so the greener practices people keep, the better the Valley is environmentally.

Some practices farmers have employed in the past, such as burning prunings, are bad for air quality, she said. Biomass conversion shows a lot of promise.

"Every region is trying to be the next clean tech hub, and not everyone can be," said Jeffrey Michael, director of the Business Forecasting Center at the University of the Pacific.

That said, he pointed out that the report is right in that there's potential in the Valley and that the area has some advantages.

One major asset is that it's sunny, has lots of land and is close to major transmission lines. Those lines lead to big cities that are going to be mandated to get more and more of their electricity from green sources.

Once projects are completed, Kantor said they'll have a spillover effect and will be a magnet for other business to supply goods and services to the green technologies.

"In other words, success begets success," he said. "That's something the San Joaquin Valley really needs."

Obstacles or hurdles to job growth could be getting regulatory approvals for the high-speed rail or energy projects that are in the regulatory queue. Raising capital -- billions of dollars -- is another hurdle facing high-speed rail.

"California voters approved almost $10 billion with a bond in 2008 and the federal government gave $2 billion to the project," Kantor said. "Things are looking good, but we still need several billions of dollars from the public and private sectors before that sees the light of day."

As with most things in a capitalist society, it's capital that shapes the outcome.

Reporter Jamie Oppenheim can be reached at (209) 385-2407 or joppenheim@mercedsun-star.com.

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