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Albany: The Surprising Clean Economy Capital

What major metropolitan area hosts the greatest concentration of “clean” or “green” jobs in the country? Is it Boston? San Francisco? Denver? Nope. It’s Albany, N.Y.

This is one of the many sometimes surprising but rich and fun findings that emerges from the Metro Program’s new report, “Sizing the Clean Economy,” which endeavors to count the number of jobs in the clean economy establishment by establishment and metro area by metro area.

Albany-Schenectady-Troy, N.Y. is a clear leader on the clean economy, with a higher concentration of clean economy jobs than any other major metro area in the country. At present nearly one in 15 Albany area workers--over 28,000--make their living in the clean economy. Moreover, with its balance of activities, portfolio of good and accessible jobs, and large “cleantech” sector focused on renewable energy technology, Albany’s clean economy in several respects presages the direction in which the nation as whole needs to head: towards a post-recession economy that is export oriented, fueled by innovation, richer with opportunity, and lower carbon.

To be sure, two major players stand out in driving the capital region’s performance: General Electric (GE) and the state government. As the capital of the third-most populous state, New York’s “Capital District” contains about 10,500 jobs in public sector-oriented segments of the clean economy like regulatory and compliance and conservation (the environment is, after all, the classic public good) that we at Brookings include in our accounting.

GE, for its part, locates a number of its critical and growing clean economy operations in its birthplace of Schenectady: its global renewable energy headquarters, its power and water division headquarters, and a wind and water turbine manufacturing facility. GE’s advanced battery research center--the only U.S. Department of Energy-designated Energy Frontier Research Center led by a private company—adds to the conglomerate’s striking presence in the region. Interesting here is the company’s siting of a new battery manufacturing plant right next door to the research facility, which reflects the ongoing recognition that innovation and production are increasingly complementary activities.

Yet Albany’s clean economy has a richness extending beyond these two major players. Over 4,000 scientists and engineers complement a concentration of over 6,000 manufacturing workers. Nearly 4,000 individuals spread across a network of 33 establishments provide professional energy and environmental services. And a solid industry presence fortified by an institutional research emphasis exists in the fuel cells segment. Despite this “cleantech” orientation, over one-third of the metro’s clean jobs are available to works with only high school diploma or less.

Looking forward, recent activity in the region’s thick network of academic institutions and public-private partnerships bodes well for the region’s clean economy future too. The New York State Energy Research and Development Agency’s (NYSERDA) energy and environmental technology incubator, iCLEAN, is maturing and its parent, the College of Nanoscale Science and Engineering (CSNE) at the University of Albany has since its establishment in 2004 emerged as a global leader in semiconductor and nanotech research—technologies that drive “cleantech.” For its part, the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute hosts the New York State Center for Future Energy Systems, which along with NYSERDA’s activities, leverages the region’s position as the state capital to establish a central node in a state-wide, cross-disciplinary, market-oriented clean economy knowledge network.

In the end Albany stands as something of an augury of a desired future for America. For a country in search of a different growth model in the wake of the Great Recession, the clean economy emerging on the banks of the Hudson and the Mohawk Rivers provides a surprising but comfortingly clear and clean source of inspiration.