2009-08-13 / Features

Pittsburgh Reinvents Itself Through Green Economy

PITTSBURGH (AP) - Imagine this: At a meeting, you pull out your solar-powered, flexible plastic laptop - fueled by an organic "ink'' solution - and roll it out on the desk. Within two weeks, you dump this piece of cheap technology and buy a new one.

This is the vision of Plextronics, one of more than 2,600 environmentally friendly companies that have settled in Pittsburgh and revitalized the local economy through good-paying jobs.

Yes, the city whose sprawling steel mills and smoky skies once symbolized America's industrial might has gone "green.'' Pittsburgh's emphasis on green recovery was one reason it was able to land the Group of 20 global economic summit next month.

"Pittsburgh was a city that had some real dire necessity there because of the loss of old industrial jobs, and they were forced to reinvent themselves,'' said Glenn Croston, author of "75 Green Businesses.'' "We need a future, and this is something that will be around not just for tomorrow, but for many decades.''

Workers in the seven-county region earned an average of $53,000 a year at more than 183,000 technology jobs in 2005, the most recent numbers available. Of those jobs, nearly onethird are in green industries, with the average wage surpassing $55,300 a year, according to the Pittsburgh Technology Council.

The city is home to the country's largest green-certified building - the David L. Lawrence Convention Center, where the G-20 leaders will meet Sept. 24-25. Pittsburgh ranks seventh nationally for green construction, with 33 such buildings, and the city offers incentives to build environmentally friendly facilities.

The region's move from heavy to green industry was partly a natural evolution, said Kathryn Klaber, a vice president of the Allegheny Conference on Community Development. Because of pollution caused by the steel industry, Pittsburgh took steps in the 1950s - well before it was trendy - to clean its air and water, passing regulations that later became a model for federal rules, she said.

Councilman Bill Peduto, a sponsor of two bills meant to encourage green construction and several eco-friendly programs, agreed that Pittsburgh was a "trailblazer'' in the 1940s and 50s, but said it lags today.

"I think deep down in our psyche, we still believe that pollution means progress,'' he said.

To attract more clean industries, Peduto said the city has to do more to combat water and air pollution, a legacy of more than a century of steelmaking.

"Pittsburgh could become a model not just for the Rust Belt, but for post-industrial cities throughout the world,'' said Peduto.

A National Energy Technology Laboratory built in the Pittsburgh suburbs nearly 100 years ago to research coal mining now invests in learning how to burn coal cleanly and finding economical ways to capture carbon from coal-burning power plants.

Even the steelworkers of yesteryear are collaborating with the Sierra Club through the Blue Green Alliance, which is aimed at creating environmentally friendly jobs.

The Pittsburgh region is one of a few nationwide boasting more than 25,000 job openings during the recession - with wages ranging from $20,000 annually to more than $100,000.

The green industry and companies linked to it account for only some of the area jobs replacing those lost to manufacturing. Regional officials note that in 2008, there were more jobs in the area - at least 1.1 million - than at steel's peak in 1979, when there were just over 1 million jobs.

Yet green jobs may also help reverse Pittsburgh's massive population decline. Plextronics, the company whose carbonbased "ink'' produces solar energy, had just three employees when it was founded in 2002; today, it has about 70 - with plans to hire 10 to 15 more in the next year-and-a-half.

The company's average age is 30, and 43 percent have young children. More than half are college educated.

The low cost of living makes it easy to recruit workers, said chief financial officer Sean Rollman. He also noted there are large companies in the area, such as Alcoa and Bayer, to partner with, and that colleges including Carnegie Mellon and the University of Pittsburgh provide a natural talent pool.

Jim Dietz, vice president of business development and a transplant from New York, conceded many are surprised by the company's location in Pittsburgh.

"But when they get here,'' said Dietz, "they're pleasantly surprised.''

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