In Rhode Island and across the US, economic troubles seem to be getting worse by the day. But there is at least one sector that sees hope on the horizon, especially in the $787-billion stimulus package recently approved by Congress.
Green energy and conservation, several local advocates and entrepreneurs say, has a chance to flourish in the coming years — even in the Ocean State, where it's barely made a dent so far, even as wind and especially solar power took hold in Massachusetts and Connecticut.
It's a perfect alignment, they say: everyone focused on cost-cutting, improved tax incentives, prices dropping fast for photovoltaics and other green technologies, and oil prices likely to rise again, if not immediately, within the next couple of years.
"Although change is really hard, the only time we will change is at times like this," says John Jacobson, president of JTJ Investments, a Providence development firm that recently opened the Wolcott Eco-Office in the city's Promenade district.
Not only is conservation's value clearer than ever, he says, but with big, fast-money deals evaporating, small investments with guaranteed, long-term returns — like weather-proofing or adding solar units — have gained new appeal. And "like in the Great Depression," he adds, people are coming together like you've never seen," eager to effect large-scale change.
This is where the Northeast Sustainable Energy Association comes in. The group is hoping to seize the momentum from the stimulus bill to do for green energy what the Providence Geeks did for IT: connect people, promote entrepreneurship, and raise the sector's profile in the state.
Next Wednesday, March 4 at 6 pm in the Wolcott Eco-Office, the group will host "The State of the Green Economy in Rhode Island," a discussion of the stimulus, related state policies and trends, and how it could all affect Rhode Island businesses and communities.
"There's a lot of interest in this area," says Jo Lee, a partner at Green Machine PR in Providence who is organizing the event. "There's a lot of interest in the stimulus package, and there's a lot of questions of, 'Where does the rubber hit the road with this? What is it really going to look like? What is it going to do for small businesses in Rhode Island?' "
For example, Fred Unger, president of Heartwood Group Inc. in Woonsocket, an energy project developer and consultant and longtime NESEA member, says the stimulus package has "incredibly streamlined" the financing mechanisms for green projects.
And locally, Unger notes, the state has recently moved its Renewable Energy Fund to the Economic Development Corporation and refocused it on small businesses and job growth.
Next week's panel will include Unger, Alteris president Robert Chew, Renewable Energy Fund director Julian Dash, and Karina Lutz, director of development and advocacy at People's Power & Light and the Massachusetts Energy Consumers Alliance.
But that discussion is just the beginning, Lee, Unger, and the others say: They're hoping to start a vibrant network of green-energy business leaders and supporters in the community, as open as the Geeks — who welcome everyone to their monthly dinners at AS220 — but with the resources that come from being part of an established green-energy organization.
"We're looking a lot longer-term than this short-term stimulus package," says Unger. "What NESEA is, and what it's done amazingly well for 30 years, is to promote the collaboration of professionals across disciplines to help create a sustainable future."
For more information about Wednesday's panel, contact Jo Lee firstname.lastname@example.org.