By Tom Still

There was a time, and not so long ago, when people who attended conferences about the “greening” of America could be safely lumped into one of two categories – environmental activists or academics.


That time has passed, if last week’s eight annual “Green Energy Summit” in Milwaukee was any indication. While environmentalists, academics and even a few no-growth diehards gathered for the three-day summit, they were joined by company executives and other business leaders who are quietly transforming how Wisconsin defines its green economy.


From large companies such as Johnson Controls, Diversey and A.O Smith, to mid-sized firms such as Orion Energy, Virent Energy and Helios USA, the conference featured a number of business speakers who talked about their successful corporate efforts to save energy, water and other resources – and how it’s essential to their bottom-line performance.


“The greening of business is an unavoidable shift, and it’s sweeping the world,” said Andrew Winston, co-author of “Green to Gold” and a Fortune 500 consultant whose Wisconsin affiliations include serving on the Sustainability Advisory Board for Kimberly-Clark Corp. “I don’t care what (political) party you are, it’s good for business.”


The “unavoidable” part of Winston’s observation is based on trends driving consumers behavior, manufacturing, transportation, information technology, natural resources, real estate, government and energy generation. While some skeptics believe the “green movement” is little more than the byproduct of global warming scares, some of the best examples of green thinking, research and action have come from business.


Speaker after speaker discussed innovations that have helped companies save energy, water, packaging, transportation costs or time, all without sacrificing business efficiency. In most cases, such steps have improved profitability and helped companies to prosper in today’s highly competitive, global economy.


Wisconsin’s “green businesses” may also help Gov. Scott Walker hit his ambitious goal of creating 250,000 private-sector jobs by 2015. Here’s why:


In a state that still ranks among the nation’s manufacturing leaders, efforts to save energy, water and other resources give manufacturers an edge over their competitors while retaining and attracting customers. In some cases, those customers are retail consumers who are demanding green products – and using social media to tell others what they like or don’t like.  Other customers are bigger businesses in the supply chain. Those businesses are increasingly demanding green practices on the part of their contractors and suppliers.


Wisconsin has know-how in a surprising range of green business sectors. Those include next-generation biofuels companies such as Virent, solar panel manufacturers such as Helios USA, clean water technology companies such as Aquamost and Bioionix, and a number of wind turbine companies that collectively employ about 2,000 workers. Major companies such as Johnson Controls and smaller firms such as ZBB Energy and PowerDesigners Inc. are producing breakthroughs in battery storage systems, corporations such as A.O. Smith are producing high-efficiency water heaters, and companies such as Diversey are making green cleaning, sanitation and hygiene solutions.


Smaller Wisconsin companies are engaged in those sectors and more. Biomass, biofuels, digesters, wind, solar photovoltaic, geothermal, conservation technologies, green building design and construction, transportation, information technology and electrical equipment are all examples.


Study after study shows that innovation, whether by larger businesses or start-ups, is essential to creating jobs. Wisconsin needs that innovation – and a huge crop of start-up companies – to create 250,000 jobs and reverse the state’s economic decline.


At a time when oil prices are hovering around $100 per barrel, when fresh water is becoming a scarce commodity in much of the world, when food prices are climbing and when smarter use of all resources simply makes sense, look for Wisconsin’s existing businesses – as well as many yet to be created – to help find profitable solutions.


Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council and co-author of “Hands-On Environmentalism,” a book about private strategies for land, water and wildlife conservation.