Fine Print - December 2009

Behind the green door
By G.D. Gearino

Cree Inc., the Durham company that has spent most of the 22 years since its founding trying to get the world to appreciate the potential of its light-emitting-diode technology, had an enviable October. First, the company announced it is adding 275 jobs to its North Carolina payroll, which prompted the governor to gush her thanks and surely caused state economic-development officials to celebrate not being asked (or gouged) for financial incentives in return. A few days later, Cree made investors even happier when it announced quarterly profits more than triple those of a year ago, a performance that sent the stock price to highs not seen since the dawn of the 21st century.

But I’m neither a Cree investor nor a state official, so for my money the company’s most valuable service was to open a discussion about the nature of “green jobs,” as Cree’s 275 new positions were dubbed by headline writers, the governor and the company itself. Cree reaped undeniable benefits by coloring the new jobs so — for one, the governor showed up for the big announcement — but when I sought to figure out at what point a job turns green, things got complicated.

Frankly, I’m not sure how Cree’s jobs qualify. They look suspiciously like old-school manufacturing. At Cree’s Durham plant, where the new jobs will be, stuff gets built: People show up for work, assemble components into a finished product, then go home at quitting time. As best I can tell, the jobs are advertised as green because 1) Cree’s LEDs, once put to use, require significantly less electricity from carbon-spewing, coal-fired power plants; and 2) like “organic” and “diverse,” “green” is a word that generates instant progressive street cred. (There could be another reason the jobs qualify as green. Maybe Cree employees have to sign a pledge to wear hemp clothing, for instance, or agree to fertilize their yards only with chicken droppings. I’d like to be able to tell you exactly why, but four efforts to elicit an explanation from Cree came to naught. No one ever called back.)

But if that’s the case — that the jobs are green because they indirectly help improve the environment — then new vistas have opened for North Carolina. The state quickly could be awash with green jobs. For instance, once you acknowledge that a barrel of oil has a carbon footprint (as anything that must be shipped necessarily has), then the environmentally responsible thing to do would be to allow oil exploration off the Carolina coast. After all, every barrel of oil produced locally is one that isn’t being transported from Saudi Arabia in a huge, fuel-guzzling tanker. C’mon down to the Old North State, Exxon Mobil, and bring those green jobs with you! We could even label the gasoline made from offshore oil as “locofuel” and dispense it from special, green-colored pumps. As a bonus, every gas-station employee would then be the holder of — you guessed it — a green job.

That’s all theoretical, of course. A real example (torn from today’s headlines, as they say) would be Duke Energy Corp., which probably wishes it had figured out this green hype earlier. The Charlotte-based company has been the target of environmentalists’ ire ever since it announced plans to expand its Cliffside Steam Station in Cleveland and Rutherford counties. Duke Energy says that the new power-generation unit “will have among the strictest, most effective air-emission controls available” and that it will be able to “retire 1,000 megawatts of older, less efficient coal-fired units in North Carolina as a result of this modernization project.” If it’s true that air quality would be helped in the long term by this project, and I have yet to read anything making the credible case that it wouldn’t, why can’t we call the jobs related to the construction and operation of that plant green?

I decided to pose that question to Gov. Beverly Perdue, who had been so enraptured with Cree’s green jobs. I chatted briefly with a spokeswoman — who told me that “reducing greenhouse gas emissions” was one of the governor’s benchmarks of a green job — and at her suggestion I wrote the question in an e-mail message that was passed along to Perdue: “If Cree’s 275 jobs can be called ‘green’ because the company’s LED technology helps (among other things) to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, then would the governor likewise call the jobs related to Duke Energy’s Cliffside Unit 6 ‘green’? ... It seems to me that Duke Energy and Cree are in the same green neighborhood.”

Here’s the response: “Governor Perdue’s commitment to green jobs is one that focuses on long-term, sustainable solutions that will grow our green economy and make North Carolina a leader in this sector.” If you can find an actual answer to my question in there, please send it along.