In the scramble to land "green" jobs, some regions are taking whatever they can get. Others, such as Seattle, would rather pursue something they can keep.
The Puget Sound Regional Council (PSRC), the lead agency planning for the future of Seattle's metropolitan economy, wants to make it the world leader in a specific area: the software that helps buildings save energy.
"Green" buildings have a host of features, from air-quality sensors to automatic blinds to switches that turn the lights off when everyone goes home. Getting all these gadgets in sync -- and minimizing the building's energy use -- takes software that "knows" what is going on: what time of day it is, how many people are in the building, what the weather's like, and so on.
The Seattle region already has a reputation for green architecture and aggressive clean energy policy. But the PSRC believes it can carve out a new niche in the world market: It wants Seattle to be the place where new green-building software, developed by companies worldwide, has to get its stamp of approval.
This software is hard to sell at the moment, said Eric Schinfeld, PSRC's program manager for economic development.
People buy energy-efficient technology, such as high-efficiency windows and insulation, when they figure that it will pay for itself through slimmer utility bills. "No one wants to buy a new energy-efficiency technology unless they know that it works," Schinfeld said at a recent conference at the Brookings Institution.
"What if there were an entity that could facilitate the installation of these new technologies into a building and then serve as the third-party validation for those technologies?" he said. "Customers would want to buy those technologies, but also the region that did that would become the international hub of energy efficiency IT. And that's what we want to do."
Schinfeld admitted it is a tight niche. But suppose, he said, the global market for this software reaches $14 billion in the next few decades. If Seattle nabs just 1 percent of that market, it would have $140 million of economic impact. It would generate 1,000 jobs by 2020.
Adding 1,000 jobs, nine years from now, hardly sounds like an economic resurrection for a region that employs 1.7 million people today. Over the last few months, the metro area's unemployment has hovered a touch above 170,000, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Stimulating a pond with two 'big fish'
Schinfeld countered that Seattle is not betting on this sector alone. It is making moves in aerospace, information technology, defense and other more traditional sectors that have driven jobs before.
"Energy efficiency is never going to be enough jobs," he said in an interview. "You are going to always, as a region and a regional economy, have to think about a broad diversity. You never want all your eggs in one basket."
Moreover, Schinfeld and PSRC do not believe it is just about the number of jobs. They argue that other countries are getting more competitive, swiping U.S. jobs on the high-skill and low-skill ends.
So as they see it, Seattle cannot chase down just any type of job. It has to pursue those that play to its strengths and will therefore stay for the long term.
But will green jobs be part of that picture? If so, how much of it?
Dick Conway, a Seattle economist, has done economic forecasts for the region for about 35 years. He said every sector has had its ups and downs. "That's always been the question. What next?" he said.
In recent history, Boeing and Microsoft have carried much of the load. By Conway's count, these companies account for about a fifth of the region's employment today, both directly and indirectly.
They are just the two biggest fish in the pond; smaller fish swim about. The whole aerospace sector directly employed about 82,000 people in 2009, and information technology employed about 187,000, according to Seattle figures.
That same year, clean technology accounted for about 62,000 direct jobs, about 3 percent of employment.
According to Conway, history shows it is difficult to predict which industries succeed. In the 1960s, some states rushed to draw in electronics manufacturing; some got it, some didn't. And in the last recession, Conway predicted the Seattle area would be better protected than most regions, but he was shocked to learn that it, too, had a glaring vulnerability in the housing sector.
A unique collection of experts
As for clean technology, his best guess is that it will depend on the national economy.
"Whatever the U.S. is going to do economywise, we'll probably get our share and probably a bit more than our share," he said. "As to what those particular things are going to be? We'll probably get some green industries ... we'll probably get our share and maybe better."
For Schinfeld and PSRC, the challenge is to make that happen.
They started by assessing Seattle's economic strengths -- not just the companies it has, but the factors that would draw new companies in green industry.
They figured that Boeing and Microsoft gave it a unique collection of software and manufacturing experts. They noticed Seattle's green-architecture firms and strong policies on green buildings.
Moreover, Washington state had the right natural conditions for testing green buildings: Its diverse climates offered a microcosm of the world.
So Seattle's clean-energy niche, they argued, should be working on the software that makes green buildings green.
Their plan has two parts. First, build a lab: Companies that design software would pay the lab to test and certify their work, to prove that it does what it promises.
Second, hire technicians: They could take the software out to real buildings throughout Washington and test it in real-world conditions.
Build the 'fundamentals' and the rest will come
In Washington, "you can test in a rainforest, you can test in a more neutral climate, you can test in a desert, you can test in cold, you can test in extreme hot," he said. "And so we'll be able to say to Texas, versus Alaska, versus California, versus Maine, here's how we think this product is going to function in your environment."
Schinfeld said Washington itself won't provide a huge market; it has low electricity costs, and green buildings there don't save as much money as elsewhere. But he forecasts healthy business in states with higher prices.
Seattle can also target a growing world market for energy efficiency. The Chinese and European markets for energy-efficient buildings may reach $60 billion each in 2020; India is approaching $24 billion; Brazil is on a path to $9 billion.
Of course, part of Seattle's challenge will be proving that its service is worth paying for.
A spokesman for a major multinational building-efficiency company wasn't so sure. He asked to remain unidentified so he could speak frankly.
The spokesman said the company's software for buildings and factories is well-proven technology, backed by "some 60 to 70 years of modern computer science" and billions of dollars of research by top engineers.
By the time a customer gets the software for her green building, the spokesman argued, she's pretty convinced.
"Commercial software developers simply do not need the particular third-party verification this proposed research center is offering," the spokesman said. "We deliver proven, reliable systems based on decades of research, development and application."
Schinfeld responded that a major company like this should feel confident about its ability to market a proven product. "However, there aren't a lot of multibillion-dollar companies out there," he said.
The majority of the companies, he argued, are startups and small firms that will want to validate and demonstrate their technologies to prove their technology is for real.
Time will tell if that yields a lucrative business for Seattle-area residents. Conway, the economic forecaster, takes such bets with a grain of salt.
He said states have historically tried to hunt down the "latest and greatest industry," and while some have succeeded, most have failed.
The better strategy to bring jobs to the Seattle area, he said, is to focus on "fundamentals": Get the state's tax system in order so there's cash to fix potholes, education, public health and other services. "People and businesses will be attracted to the place," he said. "That would be my preferred approach."