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Investors and environmentalists agree: green economy offers opportunity for growth

One group is out to save the planet, and the other is out to increase profits. But in separate announcements earlier this week they delivered the same message: investing in energy-efficiency and renewable energy offers a huge opportunity for growth.

First, the Blue Green Alliance, a partnership between the Sierra Club and United Steelworkers, touted a new study on Tuesday that claims clean-energy investments would create hundreds of thousands of jobs and be more effective at stimulating the economy than rebate checks.

Almost simultaneously, at a meeting of 3M investors in St. Paul, CEO George Buckley was describing the company’s expanding role with solar and other forms of renewable energy: “This is really just a quite massive opportunity for 3M. It’s got relavent technology in every single segment.”

Buckley then announced 3M will create a new renewable energy business unit in October. It will consolidate the films, lenses and coatings the company already sells to the solar industry, and he promised more “breakthrough” products are already in the pipeline.

It’s the kind of news the Blue Green Alliance hopes we’ll hear more of in Minnesota, as the group promotes funding and policies to boost the green economy — industries whose success is also good for the environment, particularly for combatting global warming.

The organization’s latest report, “Green Recovery — A Program to Create Good Jobs and Start Building a Low-Carbon Economy,” examines the impact of a hypothetical $100 billion federal green investment program. That’s about what was spent on this spring’s economic stimulus checks.

The study says if the government spent that money on building wind and solar generators, researching biofuels, expanding mass transit, improving the electricity grid, and retrofitting buildings to be more energy-efficent, it would create about 2 million new jobs, including thousands in Minnesota.

And the jobs created would fall across a wide spectrum of incomes and professions: Carpenters to retrofit buildings. Electricians to install solar panels. Chemists to design biofuels. Engineers to design transit systems. Truck drivers to haul wind turbines.

More and more Minnesota companies are recognizing the opportunity in the green economy, said Joshua Low, regional representative for the Minnesota Blue Green Alliance, but more government involvement would jumpstart the industries.

“We’re not tapping into the full potential right now,” Low said.

That isn’t slowing 3M, though. Supplying materials to the solar industry is one of the fastest growing segments of 3M’s business, rising at a 20 percent clip, Buckley said during his presentation. And the company estimates the solar market will more than double in the next five years, from about $20 billion in 2008 to $50 billion in 2012.

The company already sells products used in every step of the solar manufacturing process, from raw ingot metal to the wafers and cells that go into finished modules. The new business unit will also cater to the wind, biomass and geothermal industries, Buckley said.

And 3M products have the potential to help bring down costs associated with generating solar energy, he said. For example, a coating 3M makes to keep tires free of dust has applications for protecting solar panels in extreme environments.

“This isn’t a pipe dream for us. This is not the figment of our imagination,” Buckley said. “This is happening here and now, today.”

Dan Haugen covers medical technology and general business stories for MinnPost. You can contact him at dan [at] danhaugen [dot] com.

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