Create Green-Collar Jobs in Orange County

A few weeks ago I had the privilege of seeing Van Jones speak. He co-founded the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights and is founder and president of Green For All. He spoke convincingly of a future of increased equality and how one of the roads to this future is green jobs. Green-collar jobs are employment in the environmental or agricultural sectors of the economy. [Source: Wikipedia] But they also include any work that will help transform our society into a more environmentally sustainable one.

One way our local government leaders could participate in this national movement is to sign the Green Jobs Pledge. Its goal is to "rebuild American competitiveness and environmental leadership by growing a green economy that fights global warming, pollution and poverty at the same time." Here are the five steps this pledge asks our leaders to agree to:

  1. Commit to Action
  2. Create a Green-collar Jobs Taskforce
  3. Identify Goals and Assess Opportunities
  4. Create a Local Action Plan
  5. Evaluate, Leverage and Grow

So far the the U.S. Conference of Mayors has agreed with Green For All that this pledge is good idea. Mayor Martin Chávez of Albuquerque, New Mexico and County Executive Ron Sims of King County, Washington have put there name on it. You can download the Green Jobs Pledge Packet here. [PDF]

Let's discuss ways we can build a green economy from the ground up, and see if we can get our elected officials to take the pledge.



Thanks, Brian, for bringing home this nationally hot topic. I head Jones at the 2007 BALLE conference and came back convinced this was something we should work on locally.

Subsequently, the Board of Aldermen made this our top economic development priority for 2008.  E.D. Director James Harris attended the Green for All conference in Memphis last April and made some good contacts around the Triangle. He has also made contact with the folks at CCCC who are developing green jobs programs.

I plan to work with James over the summer to pull together a roundtable discussion of folks in alternative energy and green business to talk about solidifying links between young people interested in such career paths, educational resources, and the already existing employment opportunities.

Al Gore calls for "100 percent of our electricity from renewable energy and truly clean carbon-free sources within 10 years." What are our local governments doing to take this challenge and make it a reality locally?

A guest on NPRs Science Friday with Ira Flatow last Friday said that 92 square miles of solar panels would produce enough electricity for all of the energy needs of the Untied States. I don't remember if he used 'energy needs' or if he was speaking of our electrical needs. Either way that is quite an impressive fact, assuming he's correct that is.

I have heard several arguments against purchasing solar panels. The most predominant one being that they are still too expensive. In other words, they are not cost effective.

Even if they do take 30 years for you to break even on the investment

1) they immediately reduce your demand on fossil fuels. As fuel prices continue to rise the amount of energy you receive from the sun will not diminish.

2) Given the choice between today paying Duke Energy for the next 30 years worth of electricity or if investing the same amount of money in solar panels why would you not choose the panels? In 30 years you'll still need electricity.

What surprises me most about this technology is that I might see one building is a thousand that has a photovoltaic panel. Forget about how much sun this state receives on a daily basis and think about the drought that seems to get worse over the years. Now consider the fact that without enough water the Harris nuclear plant cannot function. It requires water to cool.

Solar energy can be studied right here in the Triangle not to mention North Carolina. And the components required to produce solar energy could be produced here as well. Can you say that about uranium, petroleum or coal? Which product would you like to see produced in your back yard?  

The interview can be heard on this site:

This site has more info then you need to know:

the big problem is finding a funding entity that would loan you the money on 30 year terms to buy your solar panels.   

I don't think I explained myself clearly. 30 years was a number I randomly picked. Depending on how much electricity you use, how much you pay per unity of electricity now (and how much you expect to pay in the future), the amount of money you invest in your system, and more will determine when your break even point will be. With so many variables the date that you break even will not necessarily be the same date as anyone else.

If you only have $5000 to invest then you can invest only $5000. Even though it may cost $8000 or $15,000 to get you entirely off of the grid. Just like any other home improvement no loan is necessary. And, if you do invest in a system that wont get you off of the grid entirely you can always invest more in the future so that some day you can be off of the grid!

I have never owned my own home. But I am genuinely interested in understanding why more homes do not employ solar water heating, solar power, or geothermal cooling.

Has anyone looked into any of these options and turned them down? If so, why?

Would anyone who has decided to install one of these systems tell us more about them? Why you chose what you did and not more?

Check out this video of new photovoltaic tech that could greatly reduce the break even time. Supposedly they've printed on very thin film the necessary conductive material. This is on the market now. Here are a few more URLS about thin film:

I guess this is becoming a sustainable energy video post. :) Hope it can act as a resource for citizens and elected officials.

Great story on Marketplace from American Public Media:

Solar breakthrough simplifies storage

Dan Grech: MIT professor Daniel Nocera has discovered an inexpensive way of using the sun's energy to split water into hydrogen and oxygen gases. After the sun goes down, the gases can be recombined to create electricity. The process is called electrolysis.

Nocera says until now, electrolysis required expensive transformer boxes.

Daniel Nocera: This looks like the real thing. It's as cheap as you can get, it's easy to manufacture and unlike those big transformer boxes, this works in a glass of water.

MIT has patented the process and is forming a company to develop the technology for market. Nocera also published his discovery in today's issue of the journal "Science."

Nocera: I open-sourced it right away. Because it's easy to do, you'll have the entire community across the world begin working on this.

MIT has already heard from solar firms interested in licensing the technology.

Solar energy is the hottest of the green technologies, which include biofuels and wind power, but right now solar accounts for less than 1 percent of energy use in the U.S.

Monique Hanis is with the Solar Energy Industries Association.

Monique Hanis: We have companies all over the country and labs that are working to bring down the cost of solar all along the supply chain.

More than half a billion dollars in venture capital poured into solar technology last year and investment is on its way to another record in 2008.

Green tech manufacturing in Orange County seems like a great way to create jobs for people without advanced degrees. I believe these are business types that our community could support.

Maybe  our "community" supports them, but our approval processes don't seem to work any better for them than any other business.   We've had some "green tech" companies who wanted to locate in Orange County.  At least two of which I am aware decided the review/approval process was too expensive and took too long and so they relocated elsewhere.  I think there was another one that wanted  some financial incentives that we were not in a position to offer.

 Even green businesses need to construct space for their operations, and need to turn a profit at the bottom line.  When our processes preclude having the businesses we want locate in our community,  we would do well to listen to why they went somewhere else and try to make some changes. 

Could someone directly involved in the approval process shed some light on it? Especially the specific examples you're mentioning Anita. Because I know the devil is in the details.

Anita - Could you give more details on these instances?

I am very interested in getting more information myself.   I think it is difficult to know where to improve processes without hearing more directly about what the snags were.  What I know is this:

In one case, the company was prepared to build the facility, but after reviewing the timeline with the involved governmental entities, getting approvals, etc etc, they  decided they could not wait that long.   They looked in Durham and I believe are building now. 

Second case, the company could not find suitable, affordable existing space in Orange County for their first location after R and D, and went to Durham county where such space was available because the developer had done a spec project.  The client company asked the developer about doing some similar space in Orange County, because there is a big need for it in the county.    The developer then said he could not do a spec project in Orange County because it was too expensive--it would take too long and he would have far too much money tied up in it for too long to secure good financing terms etc, before he got tenants.  

 The third instance I need to get permission before I can comment further.

It would be interesting to see a direct comparison of how the same project would navigate through an approval process in various governmental jurisdictions around the Triangle.   Someone might know if various jurisdictions  have a written approval process format that estimates time at various review points, etc---kind of like a project flow chart that a developer gets when he begins to enquire about the possibility of doing business in that jurisdiction.  

I hope we can hear more about these 3 cases. Seems like a familiar problem though - like US manufacturers going elsewhere to build new plants to avoid costs of doing business here. So do we propose to make working conditions in US as bad as elsewhere, or do we tough it out until business costs, living standards and regulations in other countries begin to rise up to our own?

In addition to the time and cost comparisons you mention, seems it would also help to see info on housing prices, commercial vacancy rates, water quality in drinking water reservoirs, etc, - you know, other indicators of the costs of these policies. Sometimes these costs aren't neatly kept within county lines - just passed on to neighbors.


I'm not surprised that developers say that they can build faster in Durham. I like to say that there's probably rarely been a project that Durham doesn't like. But I think if you ask Chapel Hill/Carrboro/Orange County folks whether they would like to live in Durham/Durham County I would be surprised if many said yes. How many people would like to see the type of massive clear-grading that occurs in Durham? Has anyone driven by the corner of 15-501 and Mt. Moriah Rd lately? (the corner opposite Outback). Or how about the corner of NC54 and NC751?

It might take longer to build here than in Durham but the good developers don't seem to be scared off. If I wanted to throw up some "flex-space" warehouses that I could lease out quickly & cheaply then it certainly wouldn't be here. But I doubt that I would want to live next to such space either.

Sometimes our review processes seems to move slowly but in many of those instances you can find an owner or developer who either refuses to hear the suggestions that the reviewers are making or who insists on taking intractable positions.

What about the reuse of existing space to fit new needs? Seems that would be more environmentally friendly. Also I bet lots of new Green businesses could fit in small spaces that don't require new buildings. It isn't all manufacturing. It could be businesses like agriculture, ecotourism, energy, environmental management, green b2b products, green building design construction, green building products, green materials, internet, media, natural foods, recycling/waste, transportation, water, etc. Matter of fact we already have lots of these kinds of businesses. The ones who aren't very green already can adapt and lower expenses in the process.

Harking up to Anita' s comment re funding, I bet it's probably true that most lenders consider very green building strategies to be experimental.  But I can name several local architects who specialize and practically evangelize in this area.  Solar power doesn't pay off right away.  Now let's think about the appearance of solar collectors.  My other hunch is that the typical new home buyer wants a "normal" looking rooftop and a "normal" HVAC system.  This answers Jamie's question -- why don't more people jump on the forward-looking bus?  Because there's too much education involved 

What looks stranger - a flat rectangular solar collector or a satellite dish? How about the various ugly pieces of equipment that are so often visible on the roofs of otherwise fairly aesthetically pleasing commercial buildings?

For years, the Home Builders Association, the Chamber of Commerce, and other heavy-hitters in the mainstream economy expended considerable energy constantly telling us that only a tiny minority wanted these odd new technologies and furthermore, that they cost way more than the normal technologies and techniques. Any coincidence that the big energy corporations are major players in these organizations and have local community members as contact people so as to maintain the masquerade that they represent grassroots sentiment? Any coincidence that the big housing development corporations rely on a simple formula to achieve profits and have been traditionally unwilling to vary their cookie-cutter approach that has brought them so much profit?

Every house I have built has had a solar water heater installed on it. Sometimes it was at my suggestion. With the solar tax credits offered in North Carolina, it usually took only a few minutes for the customers to make the decision. Those water heaters pay for themselves in 4-6 years and after that it's dividend time. So what is the most cost-saving approach? Paying by the month as utility costs rise or taking control of your energy production and achieving a significant degree of independence?

Home power from PV systems is quite a bit more expensive. Maybe a 10-15 year payback on a significant investment. However, lots of people buy $10,000-15,000 emergency stand-by generator systems that only come on when the grid goes down. Why not a solar electric system that generates power every day and is also there when the grid goes down? During the ice storm of 2002, our PV system allowed my home office to keep humming along as I dealt with calls from people who needed emergency repairs, kept our refrigerator and freezer full of food protected, and allowed us to watch the UNC basketball game that weekend.

But I am getting ahead of myself. The best bang for the buck is not in the sexy, expensive stuff - it's in the mundane realm of air-sealing, better insulation, more efficient appliances & lighting, passive solar design incorporating daylighting, etc. It's cheap, it's not rocket science, and it can cut your electrical useage by 10-50% or more.

A passive solar home with a good insulation and air-sealing job can even cost less than a conventional house with a big HVAC system, "normal" insulation, and dark rooms. On the other hand, the occupants would have to suffer from natural light suffusing their homes, the silence and draft-free feel of no ducted air, and the distracting views of the outdoors. And on top of that, they would be jolted monthly with lower energy bills.

But I am genuinely interested in understanding why more homes do not employ solar water heating, solar power, or geothermal cooling.
when i was a teenager in the late '70s (Carter years), my parents bought a home in the washington dc area with solar heated water & air. i believe it had sat on the market longer than typical, so they got a good deal. presumably some buyers were scared by the westinghouse "experimental" solar system, even though it was backed up by conventional appliances. i don't think we ever had trouble with any of it, but it may have taken longer than typical to sell the house when we moved. by then, reagan was president, oil was temporarily cheap again ($20/bbl), and solar energy was no longer "cool".

I know this is a thread on green business, so I'll try to be brief.   I will continue to beat the drum about the need to evaluate our our review process.   We should be sure that our process yields what we want in the most time and cost efficient manner for all parties concerned.   If there is a way to get the same results with less time and less work,  wouldn't we all want to do that?  Governments benefit from process improvement just as much as the private sector.  

If part of what we want is to retain a Smith Breeden, or to land a green friendly business,   we need to listen when they tell us why they didn't stay here or build here,  and try to learn something,  not just dismiss them as wanting to go develop where the standards are more lax.  Instead of us getting defensive,  we would do better to listen,  review our own system, and then we can either defend it based on facts, or change it based on new thinking.   

 My comments apply just as well to green business as anything else.  Our community is favorably disposed to such businesses, so we should be sure we help them locate here.      We should be sure we aren't making it more difficult and more expensive than it needs to be when they show up.    I don't know how we know that if we  aren't  willing to take an honest and pro-active look at the  efficiencies of our own systems.   

Every time I bring this up somebody jumps out with "look at Durham."   THAT is not what I am saying, and quite frankly, it's irrelevant to my point.   We know our process yields something different,  what we don't know is whether there are redundancies in our system or ways to improve it that do not degrade the outcomes, but improve the cost of doing business (both time and money) for everyone--government staff,  citizen volunteers, and people who are financing these projects.  

 That's the question we need to ask.  


I believe that the CH Town Council and the Town Staff have been looking for ways to improve the review process. For instance, several years ago the Council began requiring developers to present a concept plan which has helped applicants to understand what the Council may/may not want to see happen on a particular site. The Staff has over the last several years developed checklists for applicants so that applications don't come into the review process only to be kicked out (and lose their place in the queue) because of incompleteness. Several years ago the Council put a cap on the time limit allowed for advisory board review to 35 days from time of submission. All of these relatively recent actions have been designed to facilitate the review process in CH.

This is not to say that there isn't room for more improvement but I think that there has been a serious effort in CH to try to improve the process for developers. It still may not be as short as some developers would like but judging from the number of applications that continue to come in it would appear that many developers are willing to work with the system as it exists.

I think the Council and Staff would welcome suggestions as to how the process might be improved but I think it important to remember that developers' interests aren't always aligned with those of the community.

George, what methodological tools and techniques do we use to discern the interests of the community?  We toss that around a lot just like "community values," but how do we know what we think we know to be in the community's interest?


I think we try to discern community interests by the comments received during advisory board meetings, at public hearings held by the Town Council, and by written comments to Council. In certain instances, of course, we can use the results of referenda or elections to try to discern public interests. Otherwise, if there is a better way I'd love to hear about it.

President Bush said that it was in our national interest to preemptively attack Iraq, so we did.  He got reelected and the elected Congress continues to fund the war.  So, irrespective of what a possible majority of the citizens say, the war is in our national interest as "they" defined it.

Maybe there isn't a better way, but ...

Well, democracies are perfectly free to be wrong - no guarantees that people will see their interests clearly.

Still, it does seem possible to define public interest in terms of how certain policies affect our needs - the quality & cost of: drinking water resources; transportation; housing...

Interesting also is that at the last CLC meeting that dealt with development, Roger Perry said his problem was not so much with the Chapel Hill approval process as it was what happens after you are approved.  They way he described it, it sounded like a bureaucratic nightmare, where every department injects themselves into each and every action step along the way.

 Just doesn't sound efficient or right.


I can't speak directly to what Roger Perry said since I wasn't there. But I can give you my perspective on the approval/post-approval process from the view of an advisory board member (in this case, the CDC). The CDC has responsibility for approving the final elevations and lighting plans for projects. Because the CDC meets only once/month the potential for a project being delayed when applicants are asked to make revisions has always existed. To try to alleviate some of those delays the CDC has asked members to participate on sub-committees to meet (on their own time and dime) with developers in between scheduled CDC meetings to work out acceptable revisions. Roger's 54 East project has benefitted from several of these sub-committees efforts.

Another issue that has "slowed" approved projects down is that several prominent developers have built their projects with changes that were never approved by the CDC. When the developer applies for their CO and the inspector shows up with a copy of the approved plans they identify these unapproved changes. The inspector cannot issue a CO if the built project doesn't conform to what was approved so the developer has to go back and submit a revised Special Use Permit. The developers know exactly what they are doing when they make these unapproved changes. They have used such flimsy excuses as "the homeowners' association didn't like the approved plans". The most likely reason that this is occurring more frequently is that we now have sufficient inspectors to catch these unapproved changes.

Personally, I have no use for developers who feel that the rules are written for the other guy and that they know better that the process that exists. If they want to change the process - fine. But if you're going to develop in CH you should expect to follow the same rules that everyone else does.

As I heard Roger, he was talking about Town departments that get involved in aspects of the approved plan that have nothing to do with their responsibilities, thus slowing down movement.

As for your comments about developers, I don't think Roger made any of those observations.

Thre has been so much handwringing and wailing over the years about how terrible our requirements are and how it hurts our economy. Yet I have never seen a clear description of the details of a particular proposal that has met roadblocks. I am sure there are some ridiculous hurdles to clear. I deal with building inspection departments, so I know there are some unnecessary requirements. But we can't have a solutions-oriented discussion unless we get past the moaning & groaning and somebody gives us some details to work with. As it stands now, I'm reminded of Stick Williams, the old Duke Power/Chamber of Commerce hack, who used to constantly go into apocalyptic, emotional rants about the way we were killing our economy with our our draconian rules. The years have gone by, the economy is in pretty good shape, and the complaints continue. Will somebody please take the next step and explain the details?
Is the name calling necessary? very necessary.

I guess some feel that they have the monopoly on what the truth is.  No wonder why people are confused about the so-called progressive values of this community, since too often here they are difficult to discern. I don't believe name calling is one of them.

One truth is clear - there is a distinct pattern of behavior here directed towards certain people.

There are as many truths as there are people, and there are also quite a few patterns of behavior that I've noticed here on OP, Fred.

I think the best we can do is each tell our own version of the truth and try to listen to each other, while accepting that we're not always going to agree.

"But we can't have a solutions-oriented discussion unless we get past the moaning & groaning and somebody gives us some details to work with."

From what I read in this discussion, Anita is offering an inside analysis of the challenges facing economic development in this community. As she says, you can't get to solutions until you can define the problem. 

I don't read any hand-wringing, in any of the posts here. What I find confusing is a claim that this economy is in "pretty good shape." Mark--can you please explain the criteria you used to arrive at that conclusion? 

I realize you can't offer any solutions if you don't agree there is a problem. But I feel like you might have a different perspective on our local economy if you earned $30,000 a year and lived in town in an older home and didn't have a college education.

Anita's inside analysis provided us with information from one company that decided it would take too long to build in Orange so they went to Durham and information from a second, that located in spec space in Durham, that the developer doesn't build in Orange because it takes longer.

Unfortunately, neither of these two examples provides us insight into why it takes longer in Orange: Is it because they encumber the process with unnecessary rules?; is it because they want to discourage new development?; is it because Durham is that much more efficient?; is it because Durham cuts corners and Orange doesn't?

Without these answers (and others), and from more than two persons, we really don't know (1) if there is a problem and (2) if so, whose problem is it? I have a perception that it is easier to build in Durham than in Orange and maybe that perception is wrong. But I think that many have a perception that it is harder to build in Orange than in Durham and this may also be wrong and simply fueled by those people whose particular situation allowed them to move faster in our neighboring county. Until someone can dig deep and get all of the appropriate data I think we're stuck with our perceptions.

I'm getting the sense that there are barriers to getting the appropriate data like proposal materials, committee reports and related back and forth emails. I can understand that some of this might somehow be proprietary, but seems that city staff and planning board folks ought to have access for purposes of  "reviewing the review process." 


Just a general take based on the relative health of our local economy. It's not perfect, it's not excellent, but I'd say generally speaking it's pretty good. I'm sure not going to say it's in bad shape when we all know there are communities out there that are really hurting.

 Interesting editorial in the N&O today abut how the clean water at the NC coast is due in large part to the avoided run-off due to the drought. It goes on to make the common sense point that strong requirements regulating run-off are a good idea.


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