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5/19/2010

News

Greener than green
A local environmental business summit shows the true color of progress

 

Inside the elevator at the Orlando Science Center, a small sign argues in favor of taking the stairs instead of riding. It’s a great way to burn calories, the sign says; the curving flights of carpeted stairs are clearly visible through the elevator’s glass rear wall. But the suit-clad men packing an elevator, on their way from the second floor to the fourth for a breakfast spread May 12, aren’t having it.

“I figured it out. All I have to do is ride the elevator seven times, and I’ve burned the same calories,” one man says.

“I love using the stairs – going down. But not up,” puts in another.

While saving their energy for the breakfast buffet, the men are using the very commodity they’re ostensibly there to conserve. They and about 350 others showed up for the “Green Business Summit” to learn how to make their businesses – and all of Florida – sustainable, or at least a little more environmentally friendly.

Throughout the day, some of the conference participants do trudge up and down two flights between panel discussions in the Darden Adventure Theater and the snack-and-schmooze area set up in the fourth-floor DinoDigs room. But most people wait for the only elevator, even when going down. And why not? After all, using the elevator’s power doesn’t cost them anything.

But for the rest of the day, the “green” in Green Business Summit stands for both environmentalism and capitalism – and it’s clear which meaning takes precedence. 

“The bottom line is, it’s all about money,” says Gregg Fryett, founder of plant-oil producer Carbon Credited Farming, near the end of the final discussion group.


Many panelists self-identify as Republicans, and scattered through casual chatter are occasional dismissive and disdainful comments about “tree-huggers.” That’s not a label the green summiteers embrace. But they generally accept the need to care for the environment; banker Ken LaRoe denounces U.S. Rep. Bill Posey, R-Melbourne, for garbling cap-and-trade legislative proposals and calling global warming a hoax.

“We’ve got problems when we’ve got talk like that going on in Washington,” LaRoe says,  drawing applause.

For many at the summit, denying the need for environmental improvements now would mean harming their own businesses, so such acceptance is hardly surprising. But just to show where their priorities lie, state Rep. Steve Precourt dismisses criticism of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill now threatening Florida’s Gulf Coast, telling people “don’t panic” about drilling. Precourt, an Orlando Republican, backs more oil drilling as long as there’s a dollar left in it – contradicting several years of “drill now, pay less” rhetoric from his party, he allows that more offshore drilling won’t really affect gas prices. What it will do, Precourt says, is provide money to then invest in new sources of clean energy.

Seriously, that’s his argument.

Precourt’s big brag, however, is being a main backer of the Property Assessed Clean Energy bill that just passed the Florida Legislature. He says it will “remove the financing hurdle” for small businesses and provide matching dollars for bigger federal loans.

Consultant Paul Messerschmidt gives a primer on PACE to an attentive audience, saying it just represents a new purpose for special districts, of which more than 1,600 already exist in Florida. Specifically, PACE will let districts be established for voluntary “self-financing” of green improvements to homes, spreading repayment over several years, during which most of the improvements should pay for themselves through improved efficiency.

Brian Lamb, CEO of District Management Services, predicts that PACE will be a “huge success” over the next 12 to 18 months. He endorses it as a great idea – not least because his firm will benefit from PACE; he pitches his own company as a great way to manage any new special districts.

It wasn’t always easy to be green. A quarter-century ago, most companies resisted because their efforts to reduce energy use or cut pollutants often led to increased prices for consumers, who would then buy less, says Dr. Paul Chadik of the Environmental Engineering Sciences department at the University of Florida. He didn’t attend the Green Business Summit but is familiar with the idea and approves of it as a way to finally get the general business community solidly behind environmental efforts. 

“I think it’s great for businesses to share the idea of sustainability and particularly to share the idea that it can be profitable to them,” he says.

Already business reluctance has softened as more people have become concerned about the environment and are willing to pay a few cents more for “greener” products, Chadik says. At the same time, companies found that by saving energy and putting out fewer pollutants, they could often make a better product and save money.

“That’s where the profitability of green engineering started to come into play,” Chadik says. “The more you can show a company that it’s profitable to go green … then the more people are going to go down that road.”

His statement is borne out by Richard Greene, senior sustainability consultant for Verizon. Greene tells the summit crowd that only about 5 percent of the phone company’s customers really care whether their service is as environmentally friendly as possible. That’s just not enough to make Verizon change its ways – but when the company found it could save money by going greener, that did it, he says.

Officially, the Green Business Summit was open to the public. But Anthony Cannon, one of the event planners, says they tried to keep it “semi-private” so businesspeople, financiers and politicos could work out collaborations.

It came with boilerplate endorsements from Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer and Orange County Mayor Rich Crotty, and a near-campaign speech from Alex Sink, Florida CFO and a Democratic candidate for governor. Gov. Charlie Crist was to be the day’s big-ticket speaker, but he backed out, citing other commitments – a move openly disparaged by a number of people at the event.

The Orlando meeting’s major sponsors were the giant law firm Holland & Knight, business lobbying group Associated Industries of Florida, German electronics firm Siemens, Orlando Utilities Commission, economic-development board Enterprise Florida and computer-disposal company Creative Recycling Systems. Most of the minor sponsors were companies with various “green” products to sell.

This was the state’s second such summit. The first took place in St. Petersburg on Oct. 27. Like the Orlando event, it was put on by Tampa-based nonprofit group United for a Sustainable America. Green business summits have also been held in Nashville, Seattle and two boroughs of New York City, hosted by similar groups – and one in Vancouver, B.C., was backed by Wal-Mart.

Cannon says more meetings are planned in North Carolina’s research triangle, then Chicago – then Istanbul, Turkey.


Mary Rawl, a self-employed water resources consultant from Fort Myers, says she came to the summit to learn about new environmental technology and products. It’s heartening to see officials from across the state taking those ideas back to their communities, she says; those that listen now – like Orlando – are likely to thrive in the coming days when more people base their spending decisions on environmental concerns. That’s especially true in Florida, to which many people already come for clean air and water, Rawl says.

The fear of falling behind not just neighboring cities but other countries is another prominent theme because of the economic disadvantage that would bring. Scott McIntyre, Solar Energy Management CEO, raises the specter of economically viable solar power in China and Germany. Even the American “armpit” of New Jersey is ahead of Florida, McIntyre says.

All agree that it will take lots of money to make that technological leap – a prospect that encourages those in the right field. Big bucks are surely involved in the Obama administration’s emphasis on alternative energy, a prospect that has numerous summit participants eager to hear how they can qualify for funding. Coal and nuclear power are the big winners in the just-presented Kerry-Lieberman energy bill, but there’s something in there for wind power, solar energy and others too, says Holland & Knight partner David Verhey. Getting the feds to smooth a path for specific businesses, however, will take heavy-hitting lobbyists. Verhey quotes a Washington maxim: “If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu.”

Coincidentally, it’s just that sort of lobbying in which Holland & Knight specializes. For a price.

However the money shakes out, it’ll take just such a business-and-government hobnob to eventually build a community that’s both environmentally and economically viable, says Dr. Harold Gerdes, technology and biophysics advisor to Fryett’s oil-farm firm. Gerdes says he’s “been waiting for this since the early ‘60s” and is pleased with the Green Business Summit setup. Now that it’s this well-organized, it’s here to stay, he says.

“I think we’re going to see more of this.”

jgaines@orlandoweekly.com
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