Spokane Regional Networking, Social Media, Professional and Business Development
The green community has a problem, and I hope we can address it and brainstorm how we can start providing solutions.
First, let's be frank. Sustainability and social issues have no doubt gained more traction over the last ten years in our area, going from obscure to mainstream. While we still seem to be chasing Seattle and defining our own path, our area has blossomed with great new networks and businesses that support social and environmental concerns and the "sustainability" network I believe is more diverse and stronger than ever.
From this network we've established not only local champions and networking hubs, but began to produce what are our first rounds of "sustainability focused" young professionals. Out of the gate they are enthusiastic, educated, experienced and are seeking to use their talents for ways to help the INW become more environmentally and socially sustainable.
While not everyone of these young professionals is specialized in "sustainability" or "green" practices, their seems to be an unfulfilled desire coming for classic disciplines such as Architecture, Business, Agriculture, Engineering, and Construction who with to leverage their skills to not only make a living, but to better our community. As someone who is trained in sustainability disciplines (MBA in Sustainable Business, Multiple Green Building Certifications) I run within the same circles of many of these individuals, and find a all too often common thread: They cannot find work in the area the matches their aspirations of environmental and social responsibility.
While it's not overlooked that everyone is struggling to find work in our area and beyond in this economy, I believe this trend goes beyond this. I've seen very talented individuals over the last year leave Spokane/CDA not because their were not jobs available, or because of pay, but because they could not live out their sustainability ambitions within the jobs in our area. When our community is turning it's back on people who's ambition is to make it better, we have an issue.
Energy Efficiency and Business Sustainability Specialist
My name is Victor and I am involved with a lot of sustainability projects as well as other organizations, including Cleantech Open. I share many of your views and think it is important to pull in as a community and assess ways where we can change our views and encourage more collaboration in in this sector.
My questions parallel on many of the things you've addressed:
- How can we make the Inland Northwest a development portal that encourages growth and even inspire outside investors?
- Why isn't the community implementing large initiatives that will foster cleantech effectively?
- What will create a culture that values diversity and sustainability in the community?
Five large colleges in the Spokane area and what outcome? What are other communities doing that we're not? Rather than attack on these issues, I do want to find ways our community can collaborate on this. Like you'd shared, a component lies in the reason that enthusiasts "could not live their sustainability ambitions within the jobs in our area."
This trend is very much in existence and I think to combat it requires a great amount of interest and collaboration within the community. I am very much interested in what our Launch Pad community thinks about this, but I stand by Ryan and think this article is well stated.
If the opportunity exist, I am interested to coordinate a gathering to discuss and elaborate more on this issue.
Victor, thanks for the follow up. I appreciate your comments and digging a bit deeper into the questions of why we as a community are facing what will surely be an ongoing challenge that needs to be addressed continuously (not a one time solution to a problem as I mistakenly framed it originally).
I think your questions take us a bit deeper to the core of what the challenges really are: The What, Why, and How we make this community not only an attractive business environment for outside investors, but one for industries such as clean tech that we desire.
I think your questions about college participation are in the right place as well. While I know that many of our colleges are offering 1st and 3rd party "green career" training such as solar panel installation training, energy auditing training, and green business skills, It almost becomes a chicken and egg scenario. I don't have the stats of local enrollment for this types of programs, but if there are graduates coming out, they are leaving with skills that are useful but unemployable for the area as a whole. On the other hand, we cannot start building these industries without those skilled workers already in the community. There is no doubt that higher education has a role in this discussion, and would ideally foster community partnerships to ensure that there is a future for the skills they are teaching in our area.
As Spokane begins their process of launching their BALLE Network, this may be a topic that needs to be weaved into their discussions as well.
Victor, I would love to hear more about your ideas sometime on this topic and would be very open to working with you on some sort of coordination of a real event surrounding this idea if there is interest in the broader community. Feel free to contact me directly anytime.
As we move forward in this economy, we will need to keep in mind that one of the critical pieces of clean or green tech will be the more mundane green piece- the money! i deal with many people who would put in solar panels or windmills to be self sufficient and energy independent, but the additional costs are beyond their financial capacity. lenders are nervous that many of the green pieces could easily dissappear if there was a default, any ideas on how to solve that?
with university funding as uncertian as it is now, i was surprised to hear that EWU was doing a facility that would test green products and encourage the movement towards sustainibilty.
i welcome your thoughts.
Absolutely! Intrinsic motivations can only take you so far in the real world, and for the most part there needs to be a good monetary reason for taking on the sort of projects you spoke of specifically - residential energy efficiency upgrades.
Coming from the residential energy retrofit field, I often feel that the attempts to do the fancy upgrades such as solar or wind is a bit silly for most folks if there motivation is to save energy or reduce grid dependence. Don't get me wrong, these upgrades can be great, when the building is first considered holistically. These options are the last step in a longer discussion about building efficiency and reducing before you offset. A decent energy audit provides home and business owners with valuable information about how to first lower their energy usage, before they try to offset it. Energy efficiency retrofitting makes more fiscal sense with quicker returns, is within financial reach of more people, and is ultimately better for the environment.
But you get to a good point when we are talking about financing and building upgrades, and it is one of the key components that is still being figured out. The Spokane Home Builders Association hosted a great 1/2 day roundtable discussion between lenders, appraisers, builders, energy raters, real estate agents, and other stakeholders to start a community dialogue about just this topic. Banks have had, until recently as I understand, a green loan program that could be taken out with the mortgage to do energy efficiency upgrades. As a new homeowner as of two years ago, I found not only resistance from my real estate agent (it will slow things down) to complete ignorance from my lender as of what the program even was. The roundtable was a great instance of the steps the building market has made in the area to start better understanding and providing green financing, valuation, and metrics for the building industry.
In the residential market, it's traditionally been hard to make the efficiency upgrades because most people don't have the upfront funds to do simple upgrades, even if the ROI is often a year or less, don't know how or who to contact, don't own the residence, or don't plan on staying long enough to recoup costs. It's also a barrier for payback time when we live in an area with cheap natural gas and energy in relation to sister markets like Seattle.
Again it gets down to the fact that good intentions may get a person to think about acting, but useful information, and available financing, and strong fiscal returns all play a part. The financing program called PACE was recently seen as a key component to providing useful information, financing, and tying the returns to the life of the building, not the homeowner like most home financing.
While there were many variations, in simplest form, a bond or revolving loan program was set up by municipalities, or other parties like utility companies. An energy audit was performed, and if the recommended options would save the home owner more money a year than the yearly loan payment to do the upgrades would cost, the upgrades would be performed and paid for by the bond/loan. If the home owner/tenant moved out before the loan was paid in full, the next home owner would be obligated. This way the beneficiary of the upgrades paid the loan, and the energy savings would be enough to offset the loan payment creating a net positive for the homeowner.
The issue became who would be first to the table incase of a home default- the mortgage lender or the PACE lender. Freddie and Fannie have since put these types of programs on hold to make sure they recoup their losses first. Sadly enough there were statistics showing that homes which had these upgrades had lower default rates than other homes, but that's another topic.
Anyway, I will be first to admit that there are a lot of barriers to energy efficiency upgrades, and a lot of missed opportunity (especially in commercial). We need to go beyond the save the polar bear mantra though when we talk about these things, and realize that which low hanging fruit we can act on that make good financial sense right now, and how we can start enabling us to reach the higher savings overtime. If we start working on the mechanisms that make energy efficiency work financially, then you can reach and exceed your environmental goals as well.
I've also witnessed some draining of the local talent pool and it is real. On the other hand, I think we also need to acknowledge that there is a wave (ripple?) of such talented folks moving to Spokane, precisely because the problems in larger urban areas tend to be so intractable.
If I were faced with someone trying to decide if they should leave our region or not, I'd remind them of this: You don't have to move to live in a different place. My sense is that if this work were easy then the "green" movement would be even more prone to being a bubble than it already is. I want people who are in this for the long-term, not just for the quick buck.
Ryan, et. al.,
Great discussion. I appreciate the tension you convey. As I am recently back in Spokane after 8 years of life/work elsewhere, it's quite apparent that social and political 'infrastructure' in the region is still maturing and grasping with its sustainability ethic. Many communities in the world are struggling with very similar complexities; resolving decades of 'status-quo' and unsustainable policies with 21st challenges of Climate Change, high energy costs, health-care, aging boomers, and sprawling sub-urban land development. All of which are, and will continue to tax public resources.
All of this to say that it is our responsibility to usher in an awakening that change is necessary. There are real economic, environmental, and social costs when we allow unsustainable practices and policies to continue. Perhaps crumbling infrastructure and high gas prices may force both the private and public sectors to reconsider policy, business, and personal decisions.
The Spokane brain drain question has a long history which predates the green economy. I believe it begins with the distinction between looking for jobs, and looking for work.
If one is looking for a job, they will generally be limited by geography. However, we now know that if one is looking for work, you can reach the entire global economy from here.
Good local "born here" examples are Itron and ReliOn. Turn over some rocks and you'll find dozens of companies reaching out to global markets from Spokane, some in the green economy.
So you've come to the right place in LaunchPad for this thoughtful discussion. Here's my two-cents worth: Invest time and effort in private and public initiatives like LaunchPad and Sirti to focus on local innovation (read job creation) with worldwide potential.
Ideas for new companies need be neither far fetched nor exotic. Itron, for example, sprang from someone with a better idea on how to read electric, natural gas and water meters for the Washington Water Power Co., now Avisita.
Our largest local employers like healthcare, the Air Force and even the old mining industry are seedbeds for future innovative Spokane growth companies. How can we identifiy the winners accellerate their success?
Wow, great thoughts coming from all directions! I'm going to try to quit dominating the conversation with my super long replies, but wanted to return some quick (comparatively) fire feedback to everyone.
@Mark- I totally agree with your point of the wave of new talent moving in, something reinforced ironically with Ryan Hughes posting right after you. I would also be interested in hearing your thoughts about sustainable practices being a "bubble" as you describe it. You don't have to convince me of anything, but it sounds like a valuable different viewpoint.
@Ryan- Well put. I think the goal for people in the sustainable planning/building/public realm is to act before we are forced into action, but realizing externalized costs and taking those steps before it's painful not to seems to run against human nature at times. The great challenge has always been to bring those externalized costs in so that choices are clearer. Easier said then done.
@Rob - No doubt that this is not a new issue discovered with this industry , and lives within the greater context of creating a more vibrant business community in general. Focusing on creative centers as you describe that can foster multiple industries is right on, and for the sustainable industries in general, I would say that they don't need to be exotic either. It reminds me of the Solar Panel vs. Attic insulation dynamic I discussed earlier. Everyone wants to talk solar panels, but in reality the best thing for the house is good insulation and some caulking. Not exotic, but critical. I think that dynamic applies across multiple sustainability issues.
Thanks all for the great input!
Regarding the bubble-esque tendencies of the green marketplace that I'm a bit wary of, there was an article in Entrepreneur from last year that laid out some good questions to mull over: http://www.entrepreneur.com/article/205494-1
Now, don't get me wrong -- I'm all for switching our economy/culture over to a model that can be more self-sustaining and less damaging to the Earth. The systems that we currently have in place for our energy, transportation, food production, etc., are just flat out crazy and are destined to fail at some point. So even if there is a green bubble and it eventually pops I would hope that we'll at least be left with something much more viable and useful to everyday living than credit default swaps and whatever other forms of mystical wealth Wall Street can dream up, no?
It seems to me that for the green economy to truly function and stand on its own merit, we need to fully account for the costs of the current petroleum economy. I think once all the "externalities" of our current systems are factored in then what was once viewed as horrendously expensive "alternative" approaches will start to look pretty darn reasonable.
And how this all relates to keeping our talented folks here in town? I'm not sure. :)
Thank you for your valuable thoughts. I apologize for the late return to the conversion, I've been running around the country like crazy for the last two weeks.
The article you posted is some great insight into the clean-tech financing, which I fully agree with when we relate it to a potential (or arguably proven) bubble. I guess for myself, when I think about sustainability within business, I focus less on pie-in-the-sky clean tech, and more on sustainability within local living economies (Like the focus of BALLE Networks). They both have their part in a "green economy", but one is meant to change our energy mix with large investment, which is susceptible to investment bubbles, while local living economies seem to be focused on reducing small market risks from large externalities (whether they do so is a different discussion.) The latter I would say is not as exposed to investment bubbles, but it's success can definitely can ebb and flow with public opinion, market health, regional political makeup, and the environmental/social crisis de jour.
And how this all relates to keeping our talented folks here in town? I'm not sure either. :)
Conversation is progress.