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May 17, 2010

The Greening of San Joaquin

Patricia Kutza, San Joaquin Magazine
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A new sense of urgency is driving many green-related efforts. If you’ve turned down the audio on your I-Pod, mobile phone, TV, Blackberry, and car stereo and still hear a hum, no further intervention is needed. It’s the sound of men and women at work, building the framework that will take San Joaquin into the next phase of its vision to become a place that can sustain growth without sacrificing quality of life. Okay, you say, so what else is new?

What’s new is the feeling of urgency. With the challenges of serving their constituencies and customers in a tight economic climate, both local and county government and private companies know that ‘business as usual’ practices just won’t cut it any more. Pressing environmental issues, such as competition for scarce water supply and improving degraded air quality, are driving home the feeling that finding new solutions is not a luxury. Going green, more than ever before, boils down to ‘how’, instead of ‘why.’

The good news is that this sense of urgency is mixed with hope.

Conversations about the need to be ‘green’ are no longer lingering at the beginning stages. People in both the public and private sectors are increasingly taking what they’ve learned, sharing it, and creating new policies and practices to make this region a quality place where we live, work, and play. Here’s how and where we see this new vision emerging.

We are sharing ‘green’ practices that work

Back in 2003, when a committee of winegrowers, academics, and Lodi-Woodbridge Winegrape Commission (LWWC) members gathered together to develop the Lodi Rules, a set of 75 standards that define what kinds of practices are needed to grow wine in an environmentally sound, socially equitable, and economically feasible way, it was anyone’s guess whether it would gain the type of recognition and respect in the wine industry that it now enjoys today.

Almost a decade later, carrying the stamp of approval afforded by Protected Harvest, the environmental organization that certifies farmers’ use of environmental farming standards, the Lodi Rules program continues to gain traction.

“In 2009, thirty-four growers certified 16,000 acres of wine grapes, more than 10 percent of the district, to the Lodi Rules sustainability standards,” says Cliff Ohmart, the Commission’s former director. “There are now over twenty wine labels in the marketplace bearing the Lodi Rules logo and about fifteen wineries either using the logo now on their labels or will soon do so.”

Currently the vice-president of professional services for SureHarvest, a provider of sustainable management software for the agricultural sector, Ohmart says that the Lodi Rules template provided a framework that could be shared across disciplines. “We are working closely with the Almond Board of California in developing a sustainable almond self-assessment workbook. The SureHarvest model is based on what we learned in Lodi as well as with the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance program that SureHarvest helped put together, and that was also based on the Lodi workbook program.”

A sustainability workbook approach is needed as much by cities as it is by farm growers, and in the city of Tracy efforts are underway to address environmental issues in an integrated and measurable way that can be used a template for other San Joaquin Valley cities. “Tracy represents an ongoing pilot project under the Emerald Cities program,” says Steve Coyle, architect and urban designer for Town-Green, an Oakland-based sustainability community planning company. The goal, says Coyle, is to meet California sustainability targets by reducing Tracy’s  “carbon footprint,” decreasing its dependency on using fossil fuels and preserving habitats and renewable resources. The plan includes implementable programs, such as the recent acquisition of a grant to create multi-family recycling measures, regulations, and best practices. The end product will be Local Community Action Programs’ (LCAP) that can be deployed state-wide.

We are partnering til we drop

Look under the hood at just about all ‘green’ initiatives happening around the San Joaquin Valley region and you’ll see a web of partnerships at work. For Tracy’s Emerald City pilot project, the City of Tracy is partners with the California Department of Conservation and additional state agencies, local government, and other local and regional organizations.

There’s hardly any project related to the growth of the clean tech sector in the Central Valley that doesn’t bear the stamp in one way or another of the influential San Joaquin Partnership, a non-profit, private-public economic development corporation that helps business and industry locate into San Joaquin County. Its Board of Directors includes key stakeholders from manufacturing, financial, real estate development, education, construction, communications, and health, as well as the Chamber of Commerce and local government.

“It’s all about leveraging resources,” says Thomas Reeves, Strategic Development and Communications Coordinator for Stockton’s ACE, Altamont Commuter Express. ACE is embarking on a partnership with California’s High Speed Rail Authority that will eventually bring high speed railway options to Northern California commuters. American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) funds will help ACE make the upgrades that will enable its trains to go faster (from 70MPH to 115MPH). “That will reduce a trip from Stockton to San Jose from two hours and twenty minutes to 55 minutes,” he says.  Also on the drawing board is a new rail service that will take passengers from Stockton to Lodi and Sacramento.

ACE is currently working on a plan that will wean its dependence on fossil fuels. “We are testing some of our locomotives with biofuels,” Reeves says. While some freight systems are already using biofuels, he says ACE is the first commuter railroad to do so.

Helping San Joaquin County businesses create more sustainable practices is the mission of the Green Team San Joaquin (see page 21 for an interview with chairman Blain Bibb), a program created by Greater Stockton Chamber of Commerce members that facilitates partnerships between private businesses, municipal and county solid waste divisions, and economic development professionals. Its outreach support team, Recycling Energy Air Conservation (REACON) is garnering praise for its efforts to educate medium and large size businesses with cost-saving ‘green’ practices. The Green Team recently gained the respect of that new ‘green’  kid in town, Electric Vehicles International, whose CEO, Ricky Hanna, calls Green Team members “invaluable ambassadors.”

We are attracting clean tech businesses

Offer a deal that’s just too good to pass up—that’s how the City of Stockton lured Electric Vehicles International (EVI) to relocate its company from Mexico to California.

CEO Ricky Hanna says that federal and state incentives coupled with great local support made the decision a no-brainer. “The San Joaquin Partnership’s president and CEO, Mike Locke, helped us take advantage of Enterprise Zone incentives and find skilled workers through programs like WorkNet and SCAP (Stockton Chamber Apprenticeship Program),” he says. What the Green Team’s ‘ambassadors’ will be able to do, says Hanna, is provide a bridge to businesses who want to understand how to make environmental upgrades to their vehicles, and to learn how they may benefit from EVI’s core business, which retrofits existing vehicles with electric powertrains and other conversions.

In mid-2010, when ACE’s biofuel-driven locomotives become a reality, it’s likely, says Reeves, that Community Fuels will be its provider of choice. Located at the Port of Stockton, this company is a biodiesel production and research facility that is designed to process multiple feedstock materials. The company projects that within a year it will be increasing its production capacity from 10 to 60 million gallons of biodiesel.

Besides its much-publicized efforts to make biodiesel production from algae commercially feasible, Community Fuels recently received a grant from the California Energy Commission to reduce water consumption during its biodiesel production operations.

This summer is shaping up to provide the Stockton area with a number of ‘firsts’. ACE is taking the green lead in running commuter trains with cleaner fuel by this summer, and come June a new wine bottle recycling company, Wine Bottle Recycling, LLC, will be moving into a 92,000 square foot facility previously occupied by the Del Monte fruit cannery. This is not a new concept abroad where European vintners are already refilling their wine bottles, but it will be the only facility currently operating in the United States, after two similar Northern California ventures folded in the ‘90s.

Wine Bottle Recycling, LLC is the brainchild of its chief executive Bruce Stephens, who told Wine Business Monthly last year that advanced technology now addresses the issues related to sorting and de-labeling bottles that sidetracked these earlier ventures. His facility will recycle bottles obtained from other recycling companies and wineries, then sort, de-label, wash, sterilize, and repackage them for resale to commercial wineries.

Stephens expects to hire fifteen employees to launch his company, and projects that he will quadruple that number, up to sixty people, within the next five years.  

When evaluating the potential of clean tech businesses, such as those in the solar and wind sectors, to produce new jobs, recycling businesses such as Wine Bottle Recycling LLC, offer the best prospects for job creation in San Joaquin County, says Jeffrey Michael, Director of the Business Forecasting Center and Associate Professor at the Eberhardt School of Business, University of Pacific. “I think the greatest long-term potential is in recycling and manufacturing of recycled and reused products (such as recycled building materials),” he says. Michael says that these businesses are more labor intensive than, for example, wind farms. Additionally, San Joaquin County offers a strategic location for recyclers “for which good transportation and proximity to good markets is important.” As job creaters, green energy companies will play a greater role in the future, he says. “But solar farms, windmills, and biofuels do not generate a lot of ongoing jobs where they are located—the jobs and income are in research and development and high-end manufacturing of the components, which are unlikely to locate in San Joaquin County.”

We are investing in San Joaquin’s future

If the San Joaquin Valley should continue to attract clean tech companies to set up shop here, it will in no small part come from these partnerships as well as organizations willing to invest in the entrepreneurial spirit that characterizes businesses in the green sector.

One group that is actively working to make that a reality is the San Joaquin Angels, a Stockton-based group of investors that fund start-up and early-stage businesses. Founded in 2008, the Angels consider business models from a wide range of industries, and currently, says Chairman and President Mark Plovnick, about 50 percent of the business proposals they receive are clean tech-related.

Plovnick says that part of the group’s mission is to help more businesses locate in the San Joaquin Valley region, but all prospective clients must pass a rigorous test, he says.  Proposals may offer great concepts for electric motors, battery chargers (for electric vehicles), or biofuel production, for example, but the Angels are looking for that competitive advantage.

“We are really looking for the secret sauce,” Plovnick explains. “So we not only look for evidence of a good management team. We also look for business models that can’t easily be replicated by large, already established companies.” The Angels field proposals throughout the year and invite two or three candidates to their bi-monthly dinner meetings, where these early-stage companies pitch their presentations before an audience of investors. Interested investors then perform more due diligence, structure a deal, and monitor their investment. There’s a solar energy-related business currently in an early investment stage that looks very promising, says Plovnick. Its scale is large enough that it will most likely incorporate funding from the Angels as well as other investors.

In 2010, the San Joaquin Angels are taking another proactive step in attracting entrepreneurs with the next big idea to put down roots in the San Joaquin Valley.

Partnering with a number of private and public organizations, the Angels are holding their inaugural two-night San Joaquin Entrepreneur Challenge, where a total of $10,000 in cash and $10,000 in professional services will be awarded to two entrepreneurs whose business plans show the most potential for succeeding while helping job growth in the Valley.

We are committed and it shows…

The momentum propelling both the public and private sector to find creative solutions to our environmental challenges is palpable. We’ve discovered by sharing our best practices that we don’t have to reinvent the wheel. And smart partnering guards against duplicate efforts. Clean tech businesses know a good deal when they see it, and we’re investing  money where we see it will benefit the San Joaquin Valley—in spades. [SJM]