Edgar Perez fits a hose from a truck containing used vegetable grease into a ceiling-high tank holding methanol and sodium hydroxide. His timing in releasing the hose's content is key to whether the mixture will produce bio-diesel fuel to power fleets of "green" trucks and buses.
It also is key to Perez's self-esteem. The 22-year-old Oakland resident with a high school education had been working in construction, living contract to contract, until he heard about this job at Blue Sky Bio-fuels Inc., one of Oakland's green businesses.
The job, Perez said, "makes me feel like I'm part of something and I'm improving myself every day." Perez could be the poster child of a movement started in the East Bay and then advocated in presidential campaign speeches and tucked into federal energy legislation: Train at-risk youths and people stuck in low-end jobs or joblessness to work in the millions of manual labor "green economy" jobs that are emerging as this country tries to reduce global warming.
"We call it green pathways out of poverty — connect the people who most need the work with the work that most needs to be done," said Van Jones, the Oakland social justice worker who started the Oakland Green Jobs Corps as well as the national Green for All campaign gaining cross-country attention.
Both the local and national programs are establishing job-readiness training programs for unskilled workers so they can get jobs in such green industries as solar, bio-diesel and wind-energy. The jobs include installing solar panels, weatherizing buildings and maintenance tasks at alternative fuel utilities.
The aim is to offer these training programs in the inner city and in forgotten rural and once-industrial towns where idleness and crime have replaced factory work.
The Oakland Green Jobs Corps program won a $250,000 grant in the summer from the Oakland City Council's environmental fund to start the program and pay for some apprenticeships. With that money, the Corps solicited bids from job-training programs and community colleges to run the job-readiness program. Those bids are being evaluated, and by midsummer the chosen agency will be ready to recruit and train its first group of green-collar workers.
The Corps also formed a Green Employer Council of local green businesses to advise on curriculum and provide apprenticeships. The 12 employers include green construction firms, solar companies, alternative fuel providers and others.
Oakland's program inspired U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to bring the idea to the national level. Jones helped her develop a bill for Congress, and he formed the national Green for All Campaign to rally support. It worked: Congress passed a 2007 Energy Bill that included $125 million for green-collar job training.
Oakland's plan also caught the attention of Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama and former candidate John Edwards, who all talked in campaign speeches about providing green-collar job training programs. Clinton co-sponsored the Senate's version of the green-collar jobs amendment that made its way into the 2007 Energy Bill. Obama, campaigning in February in the manufacturing belt of the Midwest, proposed a 10-year, $150 million green-collar jobs program.
The coming change
Environmentalists say that if global warming is to be slowed, it will take wholesale change in how electricity is generated, how people travel and how they heat and cool their houses. That means installing hundreds of millions of solar panels, building thousands of wind farms and geo-thermal plants, engineering new ways to derive energy from renewable sources and weatherizing millions of homes. Green companies are rapidly hiring new workers, and indications are they will continue.
"The question is," Jones said, "will the new green wave lift all boats, or will there be ecological apartheid, ecological haves and have-nots, whether this particular economic boom will ultimately include working-class people of color and economic untouchables."
Unquestionably, investment is pouring into the renewable energy sector and green, clean businesses.
Worldwide investment in green and clean technologies, renewable energy and energy efficiency grew 60 percent last year to $148 billion, according to figures published in February by New Energy Finance Summit in London. The tally includes all kinds of investment — from businesses expanding their operations to venture capitalists investing in startups and governments funding renewable energy projects.
Venture capital investment alone — or money put into renewable energy and clean technology startups by investors — grew 44 percent to $5.18 billion last year, according to the Cleantech Group LLC. In North America alone, it rose 40 percent to $3.95 billion, with California taking nearly half of that, or $1.79 billion.
Solar photovoltaic installations in the United States nearly doubled last year to 259 new megawatts installed, enough to power an additional 259,000 homes for a year, according to the Earth Policy Institute. The ethanol-fuel industry grew from little a decade ago to a sector with 147,000 workers in 2004.
Some solar installation firms, such as San Jose-based SunPower, which recently opened an office in Richmond's historic Ford Building, say they already need more workers than they can easily find. SunPower officials expect to double their Richmond workforce of about 150 employees in the next year.
It's the same story for Solarcity Inc. of Foster City, which manufactures and installs solar-energy systems. "We are planning on adding 200 workers in the next two years," said Lyndon Rive, chief executive of SolarCity. "The more we grow, the more we bring on jobs."
Borrego Solar Inc., whose northern California operations are based in Berkeley, also is growing rapidly. Its revenue doubled last year while its staff nearly doubled from 70 to 120 people.
"We expect to grow more than 100 percent again in 2008," said Chief Executive Mike Hall, adding that recruitment "is a big issue for us."
Blue Sky Bio-fuels, which manufactures bio-diesel fuel from kitchen grease, hopes to hire 24 people in the next year, said Ralph MacIntyre, operations manager of the two-year-old Oakland firm.
Green construction firms such as Oakland's Dan Antonioli Construction find increased demand from home buyers and businesses wanting ecologically sound buildings. Antonioli, also a member of the Green Employer Council, wants to train construction workers in green methods of building.
Even Pacific Gas & Electric forecasts a growing need for workers as it changes its electricity generation from mainly natural gas and coal-powered plants to include more wind energy, solar, hydroelectric and thermal power.
Chief Executive Peter Darbee said PG&E expects to need about 1,000 new workers in the next five years for the effort.
"We need engineers working on renewable energy projects, we need mechanics, we need call reps at call centers ... and we need people out in the field," Darbee said.
Manual laborers needed
The opportunity found in the green economy surge is that the labor in demand is manual. By contrast, the technology boom of the 1990s left out many people who did not have college educations or whose background was suited to manual labor.
A pilot program is under way in Richmond, where the city's RichmondBUILD program is placing unemployed clients into solar-installation training programs.
Ernest McKinney, a 19-year-old high school graduate from Richmond, helped install panels on an Oakland home one March afternoon.
"I wanted to do something; I didn't want to be bored," McKinney said, noting that many of his 19-year-old friends are unemployed and looking for something to do now that they have finished high school.
"It's actually fun," he said of the work. "I like being outside."
And he has told his friends.
"They sound like they're interested," he said.
For Carlos Pete, a father of four who lost his road construction job in November, it was a blessing to connect up with the solar-training program. "I love it," Pete said as he helped on the same Oakland home. "I've always been conscious of the environment and recycling, but now I'm actually working in it."
He said he is proud to describe his work to his children — "It makes for good dinner table conversation" — and he feels he is making a difference in the air they will breathe.
"It may not change in time for me," Pete said, "but it'll help my children."
California leads the way
Economists say the green sector will continue to expand, especially in California, even as the rest of the economy slides into recession.
"California is uniquely attractive to green businesses because California has the most aggressive greenhouse emissions bill in the nation," said professor Daniel Kammen of the Energy and Resources Public Policy Program at UC Berkeley. "That (legislation) really does require that we hit these targets."
Kammen is referring to Assembly Bill 32, the California Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006, which requires California to reduce carbon emissions 25 percent by the year 2020, with mandates to electric utilities. If such standards were adopted nationally, Kammen said, an additional 241,000 jobs would be created.
Raquel Pinderhughes, an urban studies professor at San Francisco State who advises the Oakland Green Jobs Corps, said the growing boom of green jobs has another upside: The work is local, and can't be outsourced.
"If you need to install solar panels on a building in Berkeley, you can't get someone in Bangalore, (India,) to do it," she said.
Pinderhughes surveyed Bay Area renewable energy and green businesses.
"We found 122 companies, ranging from solar panel installers to bio-diesel fuel to furniture makers and bicycle repair shops that are ready to hire — and in fact ready to consider people trained in job-readiness skills," she said.
But there is no guarantee that inner-city youth or people with limited skills or histories of incarceration will find their way toward these jobs without policy initiatives, she and others say.
That is where the Oakland Green Jobs Corps and Green for All campaigns come in: to recruit the trainees, get them into training and help place them in apprenticeships and jobs.
"The big challenge I see in making sure the clean and green economy actually happens is to expand the number of people who will benefit from it," Jones said. "If it is just the Prius-driving, polar bear crowd involved, that will never move the needle on climate change."
Reach Barbara Grady at 510-208-6427 or firstname.lastname@example.org.