Wichita's economy is greener than you think

07/31/2011 12:00 AM

08/05/2014 5:50 PM

No one would confuse Wichita as a home for tree huggers, but even Wichita has taken its place in the green economy in recent years.

Wichita actually has thousands of jobs tied to improving the environment — in businesses such as organic farming, insulated building materials and wind turbine parts.

But what makes the green economy different today is that it also attracts people who simply want to do well — as in, make money — rather than people who want to do good.

A recent study by the Brookings Institution, a Washington, D.C., think-tank, said that the Wichita metro area had nearly 4,000 public or private jobs linked to improving the environment.

The green sector nationally slowed more than the overall economy in the past three years, because much of it was tied to construction. But in Wichita, it has actually grown faster than the national average since 2007.

And Kansas ranks even higher in a sub-sector of green jobs that Brookings has dubbed "cleantech." Because of its presence in biofuels and wind power, Kansas was ranked first among all states for its size, growth and concentration. Cleantech includes trailblazing technologies such as solar photovoltaic, wind, biofuels/biomass, carbon storage and management, battery technologies, electric vehicle technologies, and more.

While some of these seem pretty exotic, study co- author Jonathan Rothwell said that green jobs are going mainstream, even in Kansas.

Attitudes are slowly changing in the face of higher prices for oil caused by growing demand from developing countries, as well as other environmental stresses.

"It's a cultural change," Rothwell said. "The growing recognition that the resources that societies need are under increasing pressure and unless we find ways to use them more efficiently or differently we are not going to be able to sustain them."

In Wichita

Most green jobs are still in established segments such as manufacturing or municipal services such as wastewater and mass transit. These include jobs like the industrial engineer whose job it is to cut the plant lighting bill or the driver of the city bus.

Wichita's iSi Environmental Services provides training for companies on how to deal with chemical waste and emissions, and in recent years has had its own staff do that directly.

"We will handle it from the point the production to moving it out of the building, moving into barrels, putting labels o the barrels, inspections," co-owner Gary Mason said.

His company has seen strong growth as companies have outsourced the handling of chemical waste. It has also grown into Oklahoma and Texas.

Wichita also has a strong presence in the sexier, newer segments such as making solar panels or designing roof-top green spaces. Those segments are a smaller portion but are growing faster because they promise whole new industries.

In the Wichita area, this could include companies such as Poet Ethanol Products, which markets ethanol across the country, or J.R. Custom Metals, which builds components for Siemens Wind Energy in Hutchinson.

Universal Lubricants of Wichita has built its whole company upon building a market for cleaning and recycling used motor oil.

Universal invested almost $50 million and several hundred jobs in a new north Wichita re-refining plant that opened in August 2009.

Jobs tied to conservation, recycling or new technology that is friendly to the environment will get more and more plentiful, said Peter Fox, the company's vice president of marketing.

"The term I use is that the Queen Mary has left the port," he said. "It will only get bigger and more important to the consumer."

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