There’s lots of buzz about green-collar jobs these days (sort of like blue-collar jobs, but with a sustainable edge) — whether you’re listening to Obama, McCain, or Clinton; Gregoire, Kulongoski, or Schwarzenegger.

You hear this kind of thing a lot: A study conducted by the RAND Corporation and the University of Tennessee found that producing 25 percent of all American energy fuel and electricity from renewables by the year 2025 would produce the following: “$700 billion of new economic activity, carbon emission reduction by 1 billion tons, and 5 million new jobs.”

Fine and dandy, but, some might ask “where are those five million new jobs? When will we see them?” Some skeptics have begun to ask whether it’s bordering on hype.

Big projections are just that – big projections. But there’s nothing like local industry reporting 2000 new jobs here and 500 jobs there — right in our neck of the woods — and a steady stream of investment dollars to keep skeptics pondering the possibilities.

So, we’re happy to report a real-live green-collar workforce is materializing in the Northwest, and it’s likely the wave is just gathering strength. With more policy measures encouraging green-tech investments and training programs it could swell to something much bigger. Looking at Oregon’s green-collar boom, Ted Sickinger of the Oregonian calls it a “small tsunami.”

Some real numbers from Oregon and Washington:

  • SolarWorld, a manufacturer of photovoltaic cells that hopes to expand its new Hillsboro, Oregon, operation to some 2,000 employees in the next few years.
  • California-based solar manufacturers Solaicx Inc. and XsunX Inc. are establishing plants in Portland and Wood Village, Oregon, respectively.
  • Solar silicon maker Peak Sun is building in Millersburg, OR, starting with 50 new jobs in 2008 and gearing up for at least 500.
  • Portland-based wind power manufacturer PPM Energy has seen its employee count balloon from 12 in 2004 to 559 today. More than 300 of those jobs are at the company’s Portland headquarters. (“We are recruiting all the time,” said Jan Johnson, a spokeswoman for PPM, which lists nearly 50 job openings spanning finance and legal to wind farm techs and meteorologists. “Our biggest problem is recruiting, because the boom is nationwide.”)
  • Horizon Wind Energy, the nation’s third-largest wind energy developer, is bringing jobs to Clark County, WA.
  • Global Energy Concepts headquartered in Seattle employs an international workforce of engineers and wind power consultants.
  • A search for Washington jobs on the sustainablebusiness.comGreen Dream Jobs” function (a really cool resource, by the way) revealed a whole slew of openings in the state, from positions with the National Forests to international engineering and consulting firms headquartered locally. A search in Oregon revealed even more possibilities.

And there are ripple effects in other sectors and in our communities: According to the Oregonian, the International Longshore and Warehouseman’s Union added 26 full-time positions at the Port of Vancouver last year because so many wind turbines were being offloaded, then shipped up the Columbia River Gorge. Same goes for the Port of Vancouver, WA. And, according to the Oregonian, as hundreds of wind turbines have been planted in places such as Sherman County, OR, they are “pumping much-needed tax revenue into sagging rural coffers to support local schools systems, libraries, and other public services.”

As the New York Times reports, the trend is catching on in higher ed too – as workforce demand increases and college kids think about promising career paths. Columbia Gorge Community College now offers a two-year electronics engineering technician program. Many graduates of the first cohort are already working in the wind industry, earning from $35,000 to $60,000 a year, according to Tom Lieurance, the program’s lead instructor.

On the job training bandwagon: The Oregon Institute of Technology (the first four-year undergraduate degree program in renewable-energy systems in the US — “We’re constantly getting phone calls from renewable-energy companies who advertise jobs,” said Dr. Bass, program director); Lane Community College, in Eugene, Ore., trains renewable-energy technicians in a two-year program that teaches students how to improve the energy efficiency of homes and businesses and install solar-power and wind-power systems; Bellevue Community College, WA; Cascadia Community College in Bothell, WA; Stanford University…to name a few.

And it’s not just about jobs for some locals and their communities, but cold, hard cash. In Washington’s Columbia Gorge, wheat farmers John and Iva Grabner have 30 wind turbines “spread across their field,” they receive $160,000 in royalties annually – allowing them to retire comfortably without selling their land and meaning their sons can stay in the family business too. Neighboring landowners have money making turbines too, and the project is generating more than $1.1 million in revenue for Klickitat County, WA, revitalizing a struggling rural economy.

This kind of expansion into new revenue channels is possible – and much more likely — when policy paves the way. Ted Sickinger points to the state policies that set Oregon’s “tsunami” in motion, including the “renewable energy standard” and enlarged tax credits for renewable energy projects.

Most industry experts expect that the wave will wash over the state for years to come. Indeed, Oregon utilities are just getting started on a requirement to obtain 25 percent of their electricity from renewables by 2025. Combined with market-driven demand, subsidies and juicier tax credits, state officials hope that clean tech, green tech or the like will become a sturdy leg on Oregon’s economic stool.

And as Bracken Hendricks and Washington Rep. Jay Inslee report in their book, Apollo’s Fire, Microsoft’s special projects vice president, Michael Rawding, believes that a cap on carbon emissions “would help Microsoft grow an entirely new line of business, one that is dedicated to saving energy…There would be a new need for software that monitors and controls the amount of energy that is used.” Currently, Microsoft is developing a program that will put “whole banks of computers” in sleeper mode when they are not being used. Ten computers in sleeper mode will save the equivalent of one car’s CO2 emissions per year. Rawding says, “Bottom line–It’s my personal belief that a carbon cap can help us grow our business.”

Shrewd investors are riding the wave too. Clean Edge, which has been tracking the growth of clean-energy markets since 2000, reports a 40 percent increase in revenue growth for solar photovoltaics, wind, biofuels, and fuel cells in 2007 in the US, up from $55 billion in 2006 to $77.3 billion in 2007. For the first time, three of these are generating revenue in excess of $20 billion apiece, with wind now exceeding $30 billion. Between 2006 and 2007, venture investments in the U.S. clean-energy sector increased by more than 70 percent. In California alone, investments in clean tech could create up to 114,000 new jobs by 2010.

Who knows…? We may actually see a talent shortage when it comes to a green-collar workforce.

(Some say a green-collar shortage is already upon us.)

I could go on and on. Suffice to say: climate policy done right can help revitalize our local economies, take charge of our energy future, and take responsibility for our planet and the economic and natural legacies we leave our kids. Real jobs and real investment dollars speak louder than projections — and make even the biggest projections harder and harder to be skeptical about.

Thanks to Adam Brown for research assistance.