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East Bay Green Corridor Meeting Long on Talk, Short on Details

By Richard Brenneman
Thursday July 02, 2009 - 09:36:00 AM
Mayors, university and college administrators, city officials and entrepreneurs gathered at the Oakland Museum of California to discuss the East Bay Green Corridor.
Richard Brenneman
Mayors, university and college administrators, city officials and entrepreneurs gathered at the Oakland Museum of California to discuss the East Bay Green Corridor.

If it’s not easy being green, as Kermit the Frog famously sang, it’s getting easier in the East Bay—at least for businesses spawning clean, green tech and for programs that train workers how to use it. 

But for Berkeley’s Tom Bates, the region’s first car-free mayor, “To me, greening is really the dollar bill”—a means, as Tom Lehrer famously sang, of doing well by doing good. 

That was the underlying theme permeating a Friday morning gathering of mayors, university and college administrators, city officials and entrepreneurs at the Oakland Museum of California for the second annual meeting of the East Bay Green Corridor. 

A collaborative effort created at the instigation of UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau, the corridor is designed to attract and hold green businesses—especially those created by the entrepreneurial scientists of UC Berkeley and its affiliated Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL). 

The first partnership representative to speak was Oakland Mayor Ron Dellums, who struck a more somber note than those who followed. 

“We live in a world that is increasingly interrelated, interdependent and mutually vulnerable,” said Dellums. “The whole notion of national security as we have known it in the past becomes an oxymoron.” 

Dellums offered the loftiest vision of any of the speakers during a session in which visions took center stage and facts lingered in the wings. 

With unprecedented levels of federal recovery funds available, Dellums said President Barack Obama “is telling you this moment is never going to come again, a time when billions of dollars are placed on the streets of America in a few months. This is a one-time opportunity.” 

But it is also the federal government that must come up with solutions and ways to combine them “in a comprehensive, constructive and concentrated way,” he said. 

Fittingly, the next speaker came from Washington—via satellite feed. Steve Chu, director of LBNL until Obama raised him to the cabinet with an appointment as secretary of energy, told the assembly that “the East Bay Green Corridor partnership can serve as a model of regional progress in green energy.” 

With jobs in the renewable energy sector growing at twice the rate of the national job market, they are precisely the kind of jobs that should be promoted during a recession, Chu said, especially with global temperatures expected to rise by four or five degrees centigrade during this century. 

“Many species, including humans, will have a hard time adapting” to global warming, said the Nobel Laureate. “We have two choices,” he said. “We can close our eyes, or we can recognize what’s happening and seize the opportunity.” 

Chu was followed by Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates, currently chair of the corridor partnership. Berkeley was a founding partner of the corridor alliance, along with Oakland, Richmond, Emeryville, UC Berkeley and LBNL. 

Four new cities joined the partnership Friday—El Cerrito, Alameda, Albany and San Leandro—along with another university, Cal State East Bay, and two community college districts, Peralta and Contra Costa. 

“It’s really been a wonderful year,” said Bates. 

Bates said the partnership’s efforts are expanding into business and workforce development, and a major effort is underway to keep and hold companies spawned by research at universities and the national lab. 

“We had 25 startups in the last year” from Cal and LBNL, Bates said. “We will have an inventory of all industrial land in the East Bay corridor that will be available to green-tech companies.” 

The Berkeley mayor repeated a call he has made as part of his push to ease zoning restrictions in West Berkeley, an effort now underway at the city’s Planning Commission: “We would like them to be able to scale up so that we can keep them.”  

Bates said the partnership is also working with venture capitalists and will be developing an inventory of “all the things the communities are doing in order to determine what can be carried across the entire East Bay community.” 

Richmond Mayor Gayle McLaughlin spoke next, the only Green Party mayor in the Green Corridor partnership. 

She recounted a series of her city’s green ventures, including the city’s Richmond Build solar-installation training program, which serves Berkeley as well as her own city, and a $1,000 rebate program for residents who install solar systems. 

“It’s a wonderful opportunity for us to advance a new economy development that not only takes on an environmental challenge but also takes in those in most need,” she said. The solar-installation program recruits young people and gives them training in a critical sector of the new energy economy. 

For Emeryville Mayor Richard Kassis, the green revolution is already here. 

“Science has always been important to us,” Kassis said. “There are over 50 companies in Emeryville doing biotech work, and more recently we’ve been trying to bring biofuel companies into the community. We’re excited about JBEI and Amyris, two leaders in the industry.” 

Both companies are the creation of LBNL/UCB bioengineer Jay Keasling, the day’s keynote speaker. 

“It’s really nice to have a secretary of energy who really knows the science of energy,” said Paul Alivisatos, who replaced Chu as LBNL director. “The lab is in a very strong position to become the leader in global research on developing green technology.” 

A key first step, he said, is incorporating energy efficiency in buildings. Farther down the road, capping carbon emissions is critical, with research focused on carbon sequestration and new forms of solar electricity generation through new types of photovoltaics and fuels.  

UCB Chancellor Robert Birgeneau rounded out the main panel, focusing on the $500 million, 10-year alternative-energy research grant funded by BP, the company formerly known as British Petroleum and earlier as the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company. 

Berkeley receives $35 million of the annual $50 million, the rest going to its research partner, the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, where crops proposed as fuel sources are being bred and grown. 

“BP looked around the world and finally had to choose between the East Bay, San Diego, Boston, London and Oxford,” Birgeneau said, finally picking the East Bay “for very good reasons.” 

With the lab up and running, 170 graduate students, post-doctoral researchers and undergrads are “in training in the new science of biofuels,” Birgeneau said. 

While announcements for the meeting touted more that $75 million in Obama administration Recovery Act funds received by partnership members, the funds weren’t awarded to the partnership, which will gain its first paid staff member only this autumn when Carla Din comes on board as executive director. 

Din has served as Western Regional Director for the Apollo Alliance, a renewable-energy advisory group, and as environmental liaison for the United Steelworkers. 

Once paid staff is on board, the organization will be housed in the offices of the East Bay Economic Development Alliance, an alliance of public and private organizations in Alameda and Contra Costa counties founded in 1990 with a mission to “to establish the East Bay as a world-recognized location to grow businesses, attract capital and create quality jobs.”