It only seems as though every company in America is downsizing. “We’re hiring three or four people every week,” says Prem Nath, senior vice president at Ascent Solar, in Thornton, Colo. Spun out of a technology incubator in 2005, the company is ramping up production of thin-film energy-producing cells printed on malleable plastic, which it sells in credit-card-size patches (to power a BlackBerry) and in 15-foot strips (for roofing material). As he unfurls a coil of the ultra-lightweight material, Nath notes that National Renewable Energy Laboratory, about 20 minutes away, validated that the material converts about 10 percent of the sun’s power into electricity. Ascent is installing production lines in a huge space behind the main office.
Talk from Washington suggests that investments in renewable energy, infrastructure, and public transit may be a partial solution to our economic woes. For the last several years, the Denver region has been staging a trial run of this strategy, one that shows both its promise—and perhaps its limits.
The Mile High City occupies the high ground when it comes to clean energy—and clean living. Denver’s sheer outdoorsiness can be by turns charming and infuriating. (The question “What do you do?” is likely to be answered with an outdoor activity, not a profession.) When I showed up at Gov. Bill Ritter’s office, an aide was carting a bicycle rack out of the inner sanctum. And while the state’s jewel of a capital may be testimony to its heritage of extraction—walls of Colorado-mined rose onyx, a dome covered in gold, and Works Progress Administration-era frescoes paying tribute to coal mining—a new Colorado is dawning. In November 2004, Denver-area citizens voted to boost sales taxes to expand the region’s light-rail system, and the state’s voters approved a ballot initiative mandating that utilities draw a chunk of electricity from renewable sources. The quasi-independent republic of Boulder is a capital of composting, recycling, hybrid-driving, and general eco-fabulousness.
Ritter, a Democrat elected in 2006, speaks of the dawning of a “new energy economy,” fueled by the shifting zeitgeist but also by the state’s research universities, local institutions such as NREL, and anticipated stimulus funds. A quick case study: Abound Solar, which started producing thin-film solar material in April in Loveland, was hatched in a laboratory at Colorado State University in the 1980s, received $15 million in Department of Energy funds in the 1990s, and in recent years has raised $150 million in private capital.
The Great Plains are the Saudi Arabia of wind, and the turbines—a tower can be up to 300 feet high, and each of the three blades weighs up to 7 tons—are very expensive to transport. Colorado’s proximity to markets, its highly educated work force, and tax breaks drew Vestas, the Danish turbine maker. The Danes opened their first U.S. manufacturing facility in Windsor, Colo., in 2008, and have three more in the works in the state. The tower factory under construction in Pueblo will be the largest in the world. “We will be processing 200,000 metric tons of steel per year,” said Hans Jefpersen, general manager of Vestas Blades America. Total capital investment: $700 million. Suppliers are following: Hexcel, an advanced carbon materials supplier based in Stamford, Conn., is setting up a 100-employee facility in Windsor.
Washington is also pitching in. NREL, which funds projects at several local companies, has seen its annual budget spike from $250 million in the Bush years to $460.5 million in fiscal 2009. The complex of labs in the dun-colored foothills northeast of the city is growing. NREL is using $66 million in stimulus money to erect a new building that will stand as living proof that green design can be economical. With its solar panels and ultra-efficient systems, the building could generate as much electricity as it uses.
These investments are helping the Denver region outperform the U.S. economy. The local unemployment rate is 7.5 percent, compared with 9.4 percent nationwide. But the total number of green jobs is still small in the scheme of things. Vestas will have 2,500 employees when fully ramped up, while the Denver region alone has lost 51,659 jobs since the peak.
That’s shortsighted thinking, said Gov. Ritter. “If you really committed to policies like a national transmission grid, imagine the number of jobs it would create,” he said. He’s right: There is a huge opportunity in a new energy economy for cities, states, and countries that want to seize it. Still, there’s a gulf between what the politicians promise and what the engineers think is feasible. NREL director Dan Arvizu warns that the transformation must be driven by the private sector and will require trillions of dollars of investment over decades. During the Bush years, NREL tried to make Washington appreciate the potential of renewables, Arvizu said. “In this administration, I’d say that our role is to put a realistic front on what is actually possible.” In other words, the hopeful winds sweeping down from the Rockies also carry some hot air.
A version of this article also appears in this week’s issue of Newsweek.