By Charis Anderson
NEW BEDFORD — Efforts by city officials to position the city as a “cleantech” hub have started to pay off, and many industry experts say the city could see a burst of economic activity over the next several years.
“Is there going to be a 1,500-person, thin-film manufacturing facility in New Bedford tomorrow? No,” said John DeVillars, a partner at Blue Wave Strategies, an advisory company to renewable energy projects.
“Can New Bedford, over the course of several years, develop a cleantech economy that employs several thousand of its citizens?” he asked. “I believe it can.”
The city first zeroed in on the economic potential of the cleantech industry several years ago, said Matthew Morrissey, executive director of the New Bedford Economic Development Council.
Cleantech is a broad term that covers a range of emerging industries and technologies related to alternative or renewable energy and energy efficiency.
“We know that our traditional manufacturing base will continue to decline,” Morrissey said. “We are acting right now to stem those losses we know are coming.”
Cleantech was one of several industries city officials identified that matched up well with New Bedford’s assets, including its geographic location and its existing work force, and that had considerable support from private investors and the government, according to Morrissey.
Venture capitalists have invested about $8.7 billion into energy-related startups in the U.S. since 2006, a trend that could continue over the next several years, the Associated Press reported.
Meanwhile, the Obama administration has pledged to invest $150 billion in energy technology over the next 10 years, which the administration says could create 5 million jobs, according to the AP.
Energy — a $6 trillion industry worldwide — will need to be completely transformed over the next several decades as existing technologies are replaced with cleaner alternatives, according to Nick d’Arbeloff, president of the New England Clean Energy Council, an organization aimed at accelerating New England’s green economy.
Entrepreneurs with good ideas are leading the charge to create those alternative technologies.
“There’s enough data that clearly supports this is a growth sector that will continue to be a growth sector over the long term,” said Morrissey. “This is not a bubble.”
The city developed a plan to attract cleantech companies that included applying for government-funded renewable energy projects and aggressively pursuing individual companies, according to Morrissey.
Morrissey said he also focused on meeting and developing relationships with state officials who could steer potential leads toward the city.
Cleantech is still a nascent industry in many ways, industry experts say the city’s efforts are already bearing fruit, both in actual job creation and in building the city’s reputation as a welcoming business environment.
“I really do think there isn’t a city in the state that has a clearer vision or more concentrated focus on this area than New Bedford,” DeVillars said. “Ultimately, that’s the key to turning good intentions into meaningful results.”
In New Bedford, there are more than a dozen companies that fall under the broad umbrella of cleantech; in total, those companies employ a couple hundred people, Morrissey said.
However, the number of jobs is not the yardstick by which New Bedford is measuring its progress now, he said.
“There are very few communities in this country that can boast about thousands of cleantech jobs right now,” said Morrissey. “We’re not talking about a sector that’s frankly mature enough yet.”
Instead, Morrissey points to companies that have chosen to locate in New Bedford, such as Ze-Gen and Konarka, or existing companies that have moved into renewable energy, such as Beaumont Solar, as examples of the city’s early success.
In 2007, Ze-Gen, which was founded in 2004, needed a place to build its first pilot demonstration facility, a small-scale plant the company could use to test its technology.
Ze-Gen has developed a gasification technology that uses liquid metal to convert waste into synthesis gas, or syngas; syngas can be used in the same way as natural gas.
Ze-Gen settled on New Bedford based on, in part, the city’s willingness to work with the company and to move at a speed that worked for Ze-Gen, said Bill Davis, the company’s chief executive officer.
“New Bedford understood I didn’t want to wait a year to get permits,” he said. “We got permitted to build our first facility in eight months … There wasn’t any kind of pause.”
Ze-Gen is now looking for a site to build its first commercial plant and is considering a number of locations in New Bedford, according to Gideon Gradman, the company’s vice president of corporate development.
Konarka, which manufactures Power Plastic, a photovoltaic material, located in New Bedford even more recently.
The company, founded in 2001, was ramping up its small pilot facility in Lowell in 2006 and 2007 when it became aware of the former Polaroid facility in New Bedford.
The equipment plant, which was last operated by MultiLayer Coating Technologies LLC, was ideally suited for what Konarka was trying to do, according to Rick Hess, the company’s president.
At the end of 2007, the company decided to purchase the plant’s equipment and lease the facility; earlier this year, Konarka bought the facility as well.
Perhaps even more important than the building and equipment, however, was the available workforce, Hess said.
“It provided people who knew how to operate the building, the facility and the equipment,” he said. “It’s something we would have had to build out piece by piece, person by person.”
Konarka initially hired 12 of the people who had been working in the plant for the former owners, and there are now about 20 people working in the facility.
As Konarka continues to grow, so do the possibilities of locating more than just manufacturing operations at the New Bedford site, including the company’s sales applications group as well as some of its researchers, said Hess.
“It is a natural growth process,” he said. “Even if companies do locate there originally for the manufacturing capability and workforce, that will foster the growth of all areas of the business.”
Meanwhile, Beaumont Solar is an example of an existing company that has moved into the cleantech space in order to survive.
When Phil Cavallo bought Beaumont Signs about four years ago, the company’s revenues came solely from signs. The sign business took a downturn in early 2008, which prompted Cavallo to shift gears into solar installation.
By expanding the company into renewable energy, Cavallo was able to keep his original employees as well as hire some additional workers; he estimates he’s grown from about 11 full-time equivalent positions to 21 employees over the past two years, although he notes that many of his current employees work part-time.
“We still do signs,” said Cavallo. “What we were able to do is retool the talent that we have, use the existing skills and infrastructure to support a parallel business in renewable energy.
According to city and industry officials, New Bedford’s early and aggressive focus on attracting cleantech companies has put the city in excellent position to attract more investment.
However, the city and the state face stiff competition in the race to become a cleantech hub, said Dan Rafferty, vice president for business development for Natural Currents New England, a tidal energy company with office space in the city’s Quest Center.
“If New Bedford really wants to keep its early lead, or its potential early lead, we’re all going to have to figure out how to make it happen,” he said.
The city has recently formed a renewable energy task force made up of representatives from local cleantech companies, including Davis, Hess and Cavallo.
By Charis Anderson