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Earning Green

Black business chamber trains residents in weatherizing homes, businesses.



When it comes to green jobs in the Bluff City, the Greater Memphis Black Chamber of Commerce is betting that another kind of green is waiting to be generated under eaves and between crawl spaces.

"Weatherization alone in Memphis represents a $2.2 billion market opportunity," said Aquila Scott, the chamber's founder and CEO.

The chamber is working to turn the need for weatherizing homes and commercial buildings into jobs or independent business ventures for building contractors and others hit hard by the recession.

The chamber has teamed with the city of Memphis, Lab Four, and the Workforce Investment Network (WIN) to offer training to the unemployed. The idea is to show people how to get in on the ground floor of a green movement that's been slow to take hold in Memphis but is expected to swell with the help of federal funding.

"Memphis historically has been behind in clean energy initiatives, and we're trying to come in and develop a work force so that we never miss an opportunity like that again," said Doug Watson, a business development manager for local technology training center Lab Four, which has been instrumental in this joint green-jobs initiative.

"On a smaller scale, it's sort of like Microsoft or Apple being at the forefront of the computer revolution," Watson said.

About 100 people already have signed up for Lab Four's 12-week Building Performance Institute (BPI) certification classes this month. Dislocated workers who meet WIN guidelines will be able to take the courses at no cost — a $3,000 value, Scott said.

"If we get 100 people back to work or even 50 people back to work in a relatively short period of time, that will mean our [green-jobs initiative] is successful," Scott said.

If the initial experiment bears fruit, more training will be offered this year. Certifications last for three years.

Tony Okhiria, a senior adviser for Lab Four who led a presentation there last week, said the Home Star Act of 2010, if passed by the U.S. Senate, will create about 168,000 weatherization jobs nationwide. The two-year federal Home Star Program is designed to provide incentives for people to retrofit their homes to be more energy efficient.

"[The certification class] shows you how to understand all the metrics and the science needed to retrofit the building," Okhiria said.

Lab Four, the only BPI certification training facility in town, places graduates on the Tennessee Valley Authority's list of certified auditors. Also, Memphis so far is the only city in the state that has energy-efficiency audits, mainly because of a 2009 ordinance that requires energy efficiency in rental properties.

Homeowners who feel their utility bills are too high can contact the Shelby County Weatherization Program — another potential hotbed of local weatherization business.

As for the city, it currently is attempting to weatherize 200 homes a month with only six or seven active contractors countywide.

Said Okhiria: "The more you can do, obviously the more money you can make."

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