As the country struggled to recover economically, many people placed hopes on green jobs and renewable energy.

But big oil still has a role to play, even as stimulus money targeted new and alternative energy solutions during 2009. And as companies sought to reduce costs, sustainability became even more mainstream — and consumers learned to be aware of “green washing.”

Here’s a look back at some top energy and sustainability stories from the year.

Sustainable Network

Boston, Portland and Philadelphia all have one. And soon, Colorado Springs will join the list of cities with sustainable business networks.

The Pikes Peak Sustainable Business Network launched March 12. It is a program of the Catamount Institute, a nonprofit group whose mission is to teach school children about the benefits of environmentally sound stewardship.

Now, the institute also will be educating area business leaders.

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“I’m hoping this group will increase the awareness of the importance of supporting the local community,” said Mike Callicrate, owner of Ranch Foods Direct and one of the founding supporters of the business network. “If you support local business, then you support local prosperity. If you support Wal-Mart, then we’ll no longer have local businesses. We’ll just have global businesses.”

And that “think local” emphasis can have serious consequences for sustainable business practices and the global environment, said Eric Cefus, executive director of the institute.

“The average product at the grocery store travels 1,500 miles,” he said. “And we don’t even think about what that means in terms of expense, in terms of fossil fuel used. If we want asparagus in January, we go and buy asparagus.”

Weatherization money

Colorado’s share of weatherization stimulus money could mean some jobs for the state.

The federal government will give Colorado more than $128 million for the state’s weatherization and energy programs as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

Sens. Mark Udall and Michael Bennet said Colorado will get $79.5 million for the weatherization program and $49.2 million for its energy program.

The money will allow an average investment of up to $6,500 for every house to increase energy efficiency and will be available for families making up to 200 percent of the federal poverty level, or about $44,000 annually.

The program is also expected to reduce heating bills by an average of 32 percent.

Costing jobs

Is renewable energy technology destroying jobs?

A study examining green energy in Spain could have implications for the “green economy” in the United States.

The study says that every renewable energy job created by Spanish government subsidies “destroyed” an average of 2.2 other jobs. Each green megawatt — energy from solar or wind power — also destroyed 5.39 jobs in non-energy sectors.

Study authors Gabriel Calzada Alverez said that only one in 10 jobs in Spain were permanent — two thirds were construction, fabrication and installation jobs, one quarter were positions in administration, marketing and engineering and only one in 10 were related to more permanent maintenance and operations.

In fact, study authors predict that the U.S. could lose 6.6 million to 11 million jobs if it creates 3 million largely temporary “green jobs.”

Sustainability’s sheen

Polar bears are drowning. Heat waves are killing people every year. About 30 percent of all species are threatened by rising temperatures. Death, famine, disease — all attributed to a planet on fire from global warming.

So what to do?

Companies are eager to associate themselves with the environment, deservedly or not — an effect called “green-washing” by environmental groups who despair about getting their message out amid all the noise.

But as the green buzz grows louder, many people are tuning out.

A study by the Shelton Group, an advertising agency and market research company, showed consumers were between 22 percent and 55 percent less likely to buy green products during 2007 than they were the year before. Message overload appeared to be the major factor, said Suzanne Shelton, the company’s president.

“What we’ve been seeing in focus groups is a real green backlash,” she said. “During the last six months, when the agency screened environmentally themed advertisements, we’d see over half the room roll their eyes: ‘not another green message.’”

Losing the V.C. battle

Venture capitalists spent $620 million in Colorado during the past three years — all for clean and renewable energy industries — but none of the money was spent in Colorado Springs.

The city is missing out on one of the fastest growing industries in the country. A report from the Pew Foundation showed that job growth in Colorado for clean energy grew at 18.2 percent, ahead of overall job growth of 8.2 percent.

Nationally, jobs in the clean energy economy grew at a rate of 9.1 percent, while overall jobs grew by only 3.7 percent during the last decade.

“Colorado Springs just doesn’t have the reputation that other cities have — we aren’t known for being sustainable,” said Eric Cefus, executive director of the Catamount Institute. “That’s one thing we’re trying to change.”

Even during a recession, venture capitalists see the importance of alternative, sustainable energy — and Colorado ranked fifth in the nation for investment dollars in the industry.

But the money and the jobs are going to Boulder and Denver.

That’s why the city has to start marketing itself — and its sustainability — differently, Cefus said.

“This isn’t going to go away,” he said. “We are still decades away from a reliable source, so the field is going to keep growing. We need to attract those industries here. We’re perfectly situated — just look at the Intel building, it’s empty and has all the space and clean rooms a company like that would need.”

Gov. Bill Ritter set a focus on new energy when he took office two years ago, and the effort has paid off. Colorado ranks in the top 20 nationwide for new energy jobs — with 7,778 clean businesses and 17,008 new jobs.

“Clean energy generates jobs, businesses and investments,” said Lori Grange, interim deputy director and head of the research unit in the Pew Center on the States. “Clean energy is becoming a critical component of the nation’s future.”

Nationwide, there were 68,200 new businesses that were created with new energy or renewable energy — accounting for 770,000 new jobs.

Farmers cashing in

Colorado’s farmers and ranchers could see “greener” pastures as a result of the climate change legislation that passed the House of Representatives last week.

Some environmental groups are claiming that farmers can cash in on the green movement by changing practices and leasing unused land.

The bill proposes to reduce carbon emissions to 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020 and 83 percent below 2005 levels by 2050 through cap and trade policy.

“Colorado agriculture can generate ‘offsets’ — verified and durable emission reductions in greenhouse gasses — that can be sold to emitters,” said a report from the Environmental Defense Fund, urging farmers in Colorado to support the legislation. “A well-designed offset program can … generate economic growth in rural agricultural areas.”

Agriculture can benefit from climate change policy in more ways than by simply “selling” unused carbon credits. The report claims that farmers and ranchers can lease the 30 million agricultural acres in the state for solar panel or wind farm use.

Not so fast, say the nation’s farmers.

The American Farm Bureau opposes the bill and is urging its members to notify legislators of that opposition.

The bill “will unquestionably impose enormous costs on the American economy, including agriculture,” said bureau president Bob Stallman in a letter sent to the House of Representatives.

Bureau analysis of the bill shows that farmers will face a $5 billion yearly impact for the next 10 years, and that’s under the “most optimistic set of assumptions.”

“Those estimates do not begin to tell the story of what will happen when the program mandated by the legislation fully takes hold,” Stallman wrote.

Big oil, enviros at it again

Business groups and environmental organizations are locking horns again over a bill that would open the Outer Continental Shelf to deep-sea oil drilling.

Businesses say that the American Conservation and Clean Energy Independence Act will reduce the nation’s dependence on foreign oil; conservationists and environmentalists claim that the nation would be better served by focusing on alternative, clean energies.

Proponents of the bill say that drilling in the Gulf of Mexico and off the East Coast could generate as much as $3.2 trillion in revenue and severely curb the nation’s need to import oil from unstable, unfriendly nations.

“This bill is geared toward increasing our independence,” said Jim Sims, executive director of The Western Business Roundtable, a Denver-based group of business leaders. “Clearly, it’s trying to increase American production.”

The U.S. Minerals Management Services estimates that the Outer Continental Shelf contains 450 trillion cubic feet of recoverable natural gas resources and 85 billion barrels of oil.

But money spent on the same old energy sources can be a “dicey game,” said Eric Cefus, executive director of the Catamount Institute in Colorado Springs.

“It’s not the right mode of investment,” he said. “Oil is not a renewable resource, we know that. We think that it makes more sense to invest in other sources — not the same things we’ve been doing.”

Vladimir Jones contract

Local advertising and marketing agency, Vladimir Jones, received a $5 million contract from the Governor’s Energy Office, to help Colorado residents learn to save energy.

The contract, which is funded with American Reinvestment and Recovery Act money, is really aimed at “changing behavior,” said Vladimir Jones CEO Meredith Vaughn.

“We will be creating an awareness campaign, a call center for consumers to find out about energy and renewable rebates and a Web site,” she said. “People will be able to easily access information they need to save energy and change their behavior.”

The program is the first of its kind in the nation, and comes from a portion of stimulus money set aside for public involvement, marketing and public awareness, she said.

While still in the planning stages, the project will launch in the spring of 2010. About 11 jobs will be directly created and retained by the contract.

The Governor’s Energy Office received nearly $50 million from the stimulus program to spend on projects.