If you were intrigued by my story Friday on the possibility of San Diego becoming the “green Houston” because of all the research and development into algae as a biofuel, you should check out this story on the green economy in Sunday’s Los Angeles Times.

The Times story takes a broad look at the green economy, focusing on efforts worldwide to develop green industries. And in doing so, the story shows that while having tons of sunshine, a lot of big brains and cutting-edge facilities have helped San Diego get an early leg up in the green economy, the competition is fierce and strong public policy must follow breakthroughs in the laboratory if the region want to keeps its edge.

From the Times story:

No one knows precisely how many green jobs exist in the U.S. economy. Estimates range from less than 1 million workers to nearly four times that. What’s clear is that clean industries have been growing rapidly without a lot of help from Uncle Sam.

Worldwide, investors poured a record $117.2 billion into alternative energy in 2007, according to London research firm New Energy Finance. The costs of wind and solar power are dropping fast.

But the industry slowed in late 2008 as the U.S. financial system imploded. Plunging oil prices and frozen credit markets have derailed a number of renewable-energy projects. Some advocates say U.S. government support is needed to keep the sector moving forward.

That strategy has worked for Germany and Japan: Neither is blessed with abundant sunshine, yet these nations boast more rooftop solar arrays than anyplace else, thanks largely to government subsidies. That has created vibrant domestic markets for solar power and tens of thousands of jobs. Asian and European solar module makers dominate the industry.

The irony, say American solar executives, is that the U.S. was an early innovator. Bell Labs introduced the world’s first photovoltaic device in the 1950s. NASA’s space work advanced the field.

The U.S. “created this technology, but we didn’t value it because [fossil fuel] energy was so cheap,” said Ron Kenedi, an American who is vice president of the U.S. solar operations of Japan’s Sharp Corp., a major manufacturer of solar cells.

“We need to reclaim our birthright.”

The story went on to talk about how states are showing a willingness to take the lead in developing and supporting green industry rather than waiting around for the feds to show them the way, and cites California as an example. However, some of the folks I spoke with say they are worried that California and San Diego aren’t doing enough to hold on to the algae industry being developed here.

For example, San Diego-based General Atomics is spending tens of millions of dollars (much of it coming from the U.S. Defense Department) on developing algae-based fuels, but its test facility is in Texas because the state government there provided matching funds to get the facility built.

“California is behind right now,” said David Hazlebeck, the biofuels program manager for General Atomics. “Texas and New Mexico are making direct investments.”


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