Moving to a cleaner economy will require greater investment in education, broader rollout of energy efficiency, green building programs and a level playing field that allows renewable power to compete with the fossil fuel sector, local policy makers, business leaders and others said Friday.
The wide-ranging discussion, featuring more than two dozen representatives from industry, government and schools, came at the second annual Sonoma Renewable Strategies Conference at Santa Rosa Junior College.
The day-long event included sessions on jobs and finance, training and education, agriculture and public policy.
"We're talking about all of the pieces that we need in place to jumpstart a renewable energy future in Sonoma County," said Stas Margaronis, the Santa Rosa-based founder of Rebuild The United States, a group focused on renewable energy development. It organized the conference in partnership with the junior college's Associated Students, the student body government group.
Speakers touted economic, social and environmental benefits of a wider transition to clean energy sources and sustainable business practices.
That effort starts with putting more people to work, especially in the relatively small field of renewable energy, they said. Nationwide, the sector accounts for about 3.4 million jobs, or about 2 percent of the U.S. workforce, according to news reports and national labor statistics.
Yet few programs exist to open up those opportunities for students, and labor laws can block hands-on experience for those under 18, local teachers said.
"That's a disconnect," said Len Greenwood, a Montgomery High School teacher whose green career program is in its sixth year and is being evaluated as a model for other schools.
Rep. Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, said lucrative tax subsidies and new drilling techniques are sure to extend the current oil and gas boom, putting renewable energy at a sharp disadvantage. With Congress divided over the value of solar, wind and other clean power sources, change is dependent on local efforts, he said.
"It's a tough road ahead, and it may get tougher before it gets easier," Huffman said.
Advocates and officials working with the solar industry voiced hope it was poised for a local boom, especially with the launch in May of Sonoma Clean Power, the new public electricity provider.
"We want to create local jobs here in Sonoma County and give folks the choice to participate in the generation of renewable energy," said Sonoma County Supervisor Susan Gorin, the power agency's chairwoman.
Already, the county's pioneering financing program for energy retrofits has supported more than $65 million in projects on more than 1,000 properties, officials said.
An equally ambitious $100 million county-federal project seeks to expand wastewater recycling and use treated water for agriculture, potentially cutting by half the demand on local potable supplies.
"It's very ambitious, but if you don't aim high, you're never going to get there," said Supervisor David Rabbitt.