Energy Allies

During this Great Recession, Ohio's unemployment numbers have continued to hover around 10 percent, and in this manufacturing dependant state it's widely assumed that as the economy begins to show signs of recovery, some of those jobs just aren't coming back. So what to do?

It's time to start innovating.

Many manufacturers and professional service providers are starting to make a change in doing what they do best - making and selling things. But instead of catering exclusively to more traditional manufacturing needs, like the once powerful auto industry, a group of local innovators are getting creative by breaking into the energy efficiency sector.

The Greater Cincinnati Energy Alliance  is working to provide leadership in educating consumers, workers and government leaders on the dollars and sense it makes to embrace energy efficiency-related work and policies in this emerging, global eco-conscious era.

"The big notion we want to really rally the business and larger community around is the idea that energy efficiency is an economic driver," said Andy Holzhauser, Energy Alliance Executive Director.

The non-profit organization was founded this January and is supported by the Greater Cincinnati Foundation, and stimulus funds from the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act.  Operating in Cincinnati, Hamilton County and the three-county Northern Kentucky region, the Greater Cincinnati Energy Alliance offers educational, project management, and financing services to retrofit buildings with energy efficient and renewable technologies.

"It's not a tree hugging concept. It's business. It's good business, with multiple economic benefits," Holzhauser said.

The non-profit is charged with a very ambitious list of duties, including job creation, energy self-reliance, local economic development and the "mitigation of global warming," all while garnering grassroots support.

Earlier this month, the Energy Alliance hosted a community meeting addressing those and other organizational goals, with a conversation with R. Neal Elliott, Ph.D., P.E., Associate Director of Research for the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy. The meeting got so much attention that it had to be moved from the Greater Cincinnati Foundation offices to a larger space at the Cincinnati Regional Chamber. Many of those in attendance, about 75, were local contractors.

Job creation in the energy efficiency sector looks promising, according to Elliot. Ohio ranks high among the 50 states that are expected to benefit from these new jobs, spurred by state and federal efficiency goals and incentives. There's a potential of 24,900 net new jobs by 2020 and 41,700 by 2030.

"You make stuff, and stuff is needed to create energy efficiency," Elliot said. "Ohio is positioned well, because of its manufacturing base, to bring green jobs."

So, what kinds of jobs are possible? They cover a wide spectrum including energy auditors who inspect structures and recommend efficiency upgrades, energy engineers, LEED-certified architects, insulators, high-efficiency HVAC installers and more.

Many of these jobs require some retraining for the region's already skilled workforce, and that training can be found locally. Cincinnati State and Technical College will offer a sustainable design and construction certificate and photovoltaic installer certification for those looking to install solar panels. 

"We have a highly skilled, highly experienced workforce. These jobs should be able to pay at least a fair wage that is close to what (workers) are used to making, and have structured their life around," Holzhauser said.

Planning is also underway at Cincinnati State for a campus Energy and Environment Center. University officials envision the center as a place that will be a regional leader in education and community outreach on environmental issues including energy efficiency and waste reduction. Officials specifically keep efficiency-related jobs in mind with a promise to "use technology in an environmentally responsible manner, but to also develop ways to correct problems created by past practices."

Barb Yankie, president of Homes Plus, opened a second business in 2007, Green Building Consulting, when she saw the need for energy efficiency services growing. Yankie and her employees work with builders, architects and private homeowners making sure their structures meet promised LEED, Energy Star and other efficiency standards. Business is booming.

"At times we feel like we're not able to keep up (with demand)," she said.  

In two years she's gone from a one-person operation to employing five energy auditors in her Over-the-Rhine office. She plans on hiring four or five others in the next year. Two of her employees are former longtime builders, she said.

"They were builders for over 25 years, their construction knowledge was perfect. We trained them in the energy efficiency and green pieces. They jumped in whole heartedly," Yankie said.

Job creation is one thing, but fostering demand for those jobs is another. Creating a local culture that cares about and is willing to put money into energy efficiency plays a large role in growing this sector of the Cincinnati economy. Again, the Greater Cincinnati Energy Alliance is stepping in to cultivate awareness, through grassroots community education.

One of the best ways to get the region's attention is to appeal to homeowners and business owner's financial self-interest, Holzhauser said. In other words, they'll be letting people know that spending money on energy efficiency improvements can save money in the family or business budget. Many improvements usually can pay for themselves in just a few short years. Most buildings can save 25-30% in energy costs with cost-effective retrofits that pay for themselves from their savings over five to seven years, according to the organization.

To drive the point home, the Energy Alliance will soon begin canvassing some Cincinnati neighborhoods, offering residents energy efficient CFL bulbs for their homes.

"Energy efficiency is affordable today. Depending on the improvement it can pay for itself in as little as a year," Holzhauser said. "We want people to know everything that is available today, how to install the CFL, and the fact that Duke provides free home audits (to customers) and rebates."

Photography by Scott Beseler
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