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Green Corridor Partnership picks up steam as UC, LBNL drive innovation

| 2 July 2009

When the East Bay Green Corridor Partnership staged its official launch in December 2007, Steven Chu was on the dais as the director of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, one of the fledgling initiative's six signatories.

East Bay Green Corridor logo

Last Friday, when Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau and the rest of the founding members gathered in Oakland for the partnership's second annual summit, Chu's appearance — in the form of a pre-recorded video — seemed to symbolize their progress toward the goal of making the East Bay a regional hub of environmental research and green-collar jobs. This time, the 1997 Nobel laureate spoke not as LBNL's director, but as head of the U.S. Department of Energy.

"Isn't it just thrilling," mused Paul Alivisatos, Berkeley Lab's interim chief, "to have a secretary of energy who really knows the science of energy?"

Yet the summit, held this year at the Oakland Museum of California, was more substance than symbolism. The ambitious private-public consortium, which aims to foster regional cooperation to solve pressing environmental challenges while creating jobs, reported that the group has garnered more than $76 million in federal stimulus funds for such efforts as weatherization, green-job training, and research into biofuels and carbon capture — much of which will be undertaken at LBNL and at the Energy Biosciences Institute (EBI), centered on the Berkeley campus. The Department of Energy has promised the lab more than $24 million in stimulus funds over the next five years to study how to clean up underground contaminants, and another $30 million to Berkeley and LBNL for work on improving carbon capture and sequestration as interim steps for mitigating climate change.

The partnership also announced that in addition to its four founding cities — Berkeley, Oakland, Emeryville, and Richmond, whose mayors all took the stage with Birgeneau and Alivisatos — it is doubling its membership with seven new partners, an expansion Oakland Mayor Ron Dellums called "phenomenal." Cities joining the collaboration are Alameda, San Leandro, Albany, and El Cerrito, while new educational institutions include the Peralta and Contra Costa community-college districts and Cal State East Bay.

Alivisatos noted that in contrast to the rest of the UC system, LBNL is "actually growing at the moment," thanks to stimulus funds, with another $115.8 million in the pipeline for projects ranging from upgrades of lab space to support for research on batteries, artificial photosynthesis, building efficiency, and other sustainable-energy fields likely to generate jobs and business development.

Birgeneau, currently presiding over a campus reeling from recessionary cuts to the state budget, proudly cited energy giant BP's 2007 decision to award the $500 million EBI to a team led by Berkeley, which receives $35 million in funding annually for 10 years for alternative-energy research. After a year of operation, he said, 170 Berkeley graduate students and postdocs are doing work on biofuels and alternative energy, and some will ultimately create East Bay startups that will bring green jobs to the region.

For Richmond Mayor Gayle McLaughlin, green jobs are a key to reducing violence and "turning around lives" in economically distressed communities. She praised the Green Corridor project for generating "the green stuff that's going into the pockets of those who haven't had it before."

Dellums stressed the link between the nation's security and energy independence, and made the case for the East Bay's leadership. "We have the industrial capacity, we have the academic excellence, we have the research capacity, we have the entrepreneurial spirit, we have the political will, we have a progressive populace and a willing workforce," he said.

Keynote speaker Jay Keasling, a professor of biochemical engineering at Berkeley and acting deputy director of LBNL, described his work to produce an affordable version of the anti-malarial drug artemisinin using synthetic-biology techniques, and to come up with a way of "turning sunlight into biofuels" by re-engineering microbes in the lab. A startup he founded, Amyris, employs some 200 workers in Emeryville. He also heads the Joint BioEnergy Institute, or JBEI, a scientific partnership led by Berkeley Lab that includes the UC campuses at Berkeley and Davis. Established by the Department of Energy, JBEI is located down the block from Amyris in Emeryville.

That confluence of interests — public and private, environmental and economic, geographic and academic — seemed to embody a core message of the summit. Instead of competing with each other to attract businesses and funding, said Emeryville Mayor Dick Kassis, the East Bay needs to "take down the borders" to make the region a national leader in building a green economy.

As Keasling noted about his own research and entrepreneurial efforts, "This work wouldn't have been possible any other place than Berkeley."