Thursday, February 07, 2008

Renewable Rust Belt

Renewable energy is the new biotech. Postindustrial economies are searching for a way to leverage their existing manufacturing infrastructure. The theory is that the Rust Belt is uniquely positioned to lead the charge in the field of green technologies. Not to dampen the enthusiasm, but the optimists on this front should listen to this interview with Richard Longworth. If you aren't inclined to download the podcast, you can find a taste here:

In the scheme of good ideas, many tout ethanol but Longworth is skeptical.

The Great Lakes, with a fifth of the surface freshwater on the planet, are a far more interesting asset: "This water gives the Midwest a huge comparative advantage," he writes. "In the future, any investor whose business requires lots of fresh water will have only one place to go." It's an idea that has become dead-serious around Milwaukee, which wants to foster a hub of water-engineering industries.

Longworth's recommendation should ring familiar to readers of the Burgh Diaspora blog. If the innovation sector isn't geographically dependent, then the investment is too risky. How is Cleveland going to compete with Denver for renewable energy start-ups?

I bring up my region of residence because of a conversation I had last weekend with a scientist who works at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) I asked him if any kind of clustering was going on as a result of the presence of the government lab. Perhaps there is a niche market in the production of machines such as wind turbines for the Rust Belt, but the bulk of research and development is moving to the Front Range of Colorado. NREL isn't going anywhere and Denver is an established center of carbon-based resources. The NREL scientist bluntly stated that the wind energy industry is centering operations here.

After speaking with the NREL scientist, I'm even more inclined to agree with Chris Varley's assertion:

Lastly, because so much depends on how we use this essential resource, having a policy group within the Institute–a mix of legal, research, commercial, and governmental expertise–is essential. It not only can help change how we use water here, but how water is used around the world, and it also helps to elevate the visibility of both the research and the commercial development occurring in the region. Not to mention reinforcing the image of Cleveland as a “Green City on a Blue Lake,” an attractive, clean place to live and raise a family.

I added the emphasis to the passage in order to highlight what already exists in the Denver region concerning renewable energy. That ship has sailed and Rust Belt cities should look elsewhere. Chris makes a strong suggestion. I think we can also become leaders in the field of network economics and global connectivity. Regardless, we can do a lot more to understand globalization. Vivek Wadhwa made this exact point to Greater Cleveland just a few weeks ago. I gather that Ohio wasn't paying attention.

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