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In a dark recession, green jobs grow strong in greater Minnesota

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Bruce Billington
Minnesota officials say 70 percent of the state's emerging green economy jobs are in Greater Minnesota. Pictured is Bruce Billington, director of manufacturing at a growing Brainerd company called Silent Power. The company manufactures a device that stores excess solar energy for later use.
MPR Photo/Tom Robertson

Manufacturing has been hit hard by the recession. But some Minnesota manufacturing companies are thriving and creating new jobs. They're part of a small sector in the emerging "green economy."

State officials say more than half of those new green jobs are popping up in areas of Minnesota outside the Twin Cities metro.

Workers on a Brainerd assembly line, for example, are making a cutting-edge device that stores excess solar energy.

Silent Power manufactures specially designed batteries, housed in a box, that make the energy available later in the day, when utility companies typically struggle with peak power demand. The devices are being tested in pilot projects around the country.

  "Every utility in the country is looking at adding battery storage to their system," said Todd Headlee, the company's CEO.

Headlee said the recession has had little impact on his seven-year-old company, because renewable energy is in high demand.

He said green technology is a growth industry, no matter what the economy does. While other manufacturing companies were laying off workers the past few years, Silent Power was expanding. 

"Throughout these tough two years, we've definitely been growing and adding staff."

  "We plan to double our size, employee footprint, by this time next year," Headlee said. "We're about 14 full-time equivalents now. We'll be at least 28 to 35 by this time next year."

This year, Silent Power will pilot another product, an electric car-charging station that will be placed in a few retail parking lots around the country. Silent Power's revenues are expected to double in 2011.

In some ways, Silent Power actually benefited from the recession, Headlee said. The weak job market meant the company was able to hire talented engineers and other highly skilled workers that had been laid off from other industries. The recession also has driven down the cost of manufacturing. 

Jobs related to solar power have exploded the past few years. In 2009, at the height of the recession, the solar energy industry in the United States grew by 17,000 jobs. 

In Pine River, 30 miles north of Brainerd, a company called the Rural Renewable Energy Alliance has expanded its manufacturing capacity. The company, which makes solar-powered furnaces, uses the profits to support its primary mission -- installing the devices in the homes of low-income families.

Founding director Jay Edens started the nonprofit company in his basement. Last year, it installed 50 of the furnaces, which are powered by the energy collected by solar panels. Edens expects that number will grow to nearly 350 over the next year and a half. He said the recession hasn't had a big impact on the company.

"The industry hasn't been immune. But throughout these tough two years, we've definitely been growing and adding staff and adding programs," Edens said. "We've been very fortunate that we've been able to create jobs for families in the region."

It appears greater Minnesota is seeing the most benefit from the emerging green economy. Seventy percent of the green jobs the state has identified are found outside the seven-county Twin Cities metro area.

Right now it's unclear just how many green jobs there are. The state Department of Employment and Economic Development is conducting a study to find out.

Kyle Uphoff, an analyst with the agency, said employer surveys have so far identified fewer  than 1,000 green job openings. Many of those aren't new jobs, but rather traditional jobs that have taken on some additional role related to green practices.

Uphoff said the data suggests green jobs may make up only 1-2 percent of total employment in Minnesota. He said until there's significant improvement to the national economy, the green economic boom that some predicted will be slow in coming.

  "What I expect to see are a number of boomlets,"  Uphoff said. "I think there are going to be small areas where you see very, very fast growth, and other areas where maybe you don't see a huge amount of growth. But it's a very, very slow transition from one economy to another."

  Results from the state's green economy survey will be released this spring.