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Q&A: Pew Trusts' Kil Huh talks about Ohio's prominence in the clean energy economy

Kil Huh
Kil Huh

Surprise, surprise. Ohio, that old rustbelt state once so dependent on heavy manufacturing, is suddenly a leader in the clean energy economy. A national survey released by the Pew Charitable Trusts in June showed Ohio was fourth in the nation in number of jobs in the clean energy economy -- defined as clean energy, energy efficiency, environmentally friendly production, conservation and pollution mitigation, and training and support. Ohio landed sixth in number of clean businesses, seventh in the number of patents filed over the past decade and 17th in the amount of venture capital committed to clean energy businesses. What's going on? We spoke with Kil Huh, a project director for the Pew Trusts, to get the straight scoop.

I think many people might be surprised how well positioned Ohio is within the clean energy economy. What surprised you about Ohio?

The top-line figures -- clean energy economy job growth of 7.3 percent between 1998 and 2007, while jobs declined within the state overall, and Ohio's leadership with 35,000 clean economy jobs and 2,500 businesses -- was surprising, given the very difficult economy.

Ohio is fourth in the number of jobs within the clean energy economy and, as you mentioned, is among a handful of states where there is growth in clean energy jobs while overall employment is declining. What is Ohio doing right?

Ohio has provided the right set of financial incentives for residential and commercial entities to join the clean energy economy and has established renewable energy portfolio standards, which set the mark for the energy sector. The state has also set standards for how much energy efficiency will be achieved in a particular length of time. And, Ohio has done a good job of building on its natural industrial base.

We rank 17th when it comes to venture capital. Is that an area for improvement, or are we right where we should be?

It's hard to make an assessment based on a state's ranking. California and Massachusetts ranked very high. And, when you think about it, Silicon Valley and Boston are where you would expect to find a large amount of venture capital. Most of the investment in clean energy jobs in Ohio is in areas like energy storage and production, which is not as capital-intensive as some other sectors..

Sixty-three percent of clean energy economy jobs in Ohio are in conservation and pollution management, similar to the national figure. Why so much attention there?

There has been a focus on cleanup, recycling, air pollution, industrial spills -- it's a direct reflection of a market need and public policy. But jobs in that category are increasing only at about 3 percent. Growth in other job categories, such as energy efficiency and clean energy production, have been into double digits.

Yet, most of the venture capital is being invested in clean energy. Are we about to see more growth in that job category?

We certainly expect so. In the three years between 2006 and 2008, 69 percent of the $12.6 billion invested nationally in clean energy jobs have gone to clean technology.

Ohio is also a top-10 state in number of clean energy economy patents filed during the past 10 years. What has been driving that?

It's difficult to tell. Clean energy growth is due to direct consumer demand over the last couple of years, and Ohio's renewable energy portfolio and efficiency standards are going to help grow clean energy demand. Both the number of patents and venture capital are representative of the innovation taking place within the state.

What could we be doing better?

The public policies that Gov. Strickland and the legislature have adopted will only improve Ohio's position. One of the things Ohio may want to do is to think more like a region. For example, the transmission of energy from the Great Plains to Ohio, and how we deliver energy regionally. (For Midwestern states to continue to grow) it will take great regional coordination. While Ohio is doing well, access to credit (for new or expanding businesses) also is not readily available just yet.

Is there anything we can learn from other states?

Ohio and many other states have public policies in place to further clean markets -- energy efficiency and renewable standards. But Tennessee, for example, has robust financial incentives to promote renewables. It's an area that Ohio could explore, especially with some of the federal stimulus money designated for clean energy.

What are the unknowns that could swing clean energy economic growth one way or the other?

Public policy is going to be very critical -- setting priorities that are not exclusive to the U.S. How is the U.S. going to compete with other countries? We haven't really focused on developing our clean energy economy. If you look at how the information technology field grew, which the U.S. dominates, that's really the model for clean energy. The infrastructure that built the IT economy was built by the U.S. government -- specifically the Department of Defense. That entire industry, directly and indirectly, benefited from public support.

Now that we've gained a foothold within the clean energy economy, what does Ohio need to do to maintain momentum?

Obviously, sending a clear market signal -- targets for the market about how much of our electricity we're going to get from renewables -- will help move the market in a particular direction. Ohio has to keep stimulating demand. Again, public policy has been evident in the growth trajectory of other industries throughout our history.

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