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Patrick O’Grady chats about covering the business of the environment

Solar panels at Arizona State University's School of Sustainability by Kevin Dooley

Patrick O’Grady has been a reporter in Arizona for nearly 15 years and currently works for the Phoenix Business Journal covering technology, sustainability and manufacturing.  He has recently won awards for his coverage of the solar industry in Arizona.

We spoke with him about his reporting on the green economy and asked his advice for reporters looking to add environmental stories to the biz beat.

What is most exciting  part of  covering the green economy?

“There are too many things from which to choose. It’s a growing sector of the economy, and it’s so diverse and there are tons of new technologies springing up to deal with environmental issues. One day is covering green building, the next solar, and a third working on a new energy system. There’s never a dull moment.”

Should Arizona be playing a bigger role in the development of solar technology?  Is it truly a viable replacement to current methods?

“Yes, Arizona should be playing a bigger role in solar technology development. Arizona came to the party late and is just getting its feet under it in terms of development of the technology. The focus here is primarily on manufacturing and not research and development, with a goal of moving more manufacturing in as well as spurring solar installation as a replacement career for construction. ASU and UofA, however, have several active fields of solar technology development, from concentrated photovoltaics to solar collecting dyes that can be used on fabrics and generate enough electricity to perhaps power an iPod or a laptop.

As far as solar being viable, it depends on what power source you want to replace. Right now, solar could replace natural gas as a peak power source, but it’s still a few years out on replacing base load power sources such as nuclear and coal. The technologies exist to expand solar power beyond when the sun is out, it just needs to be implemented on a large scale. The challenge at this point is somewhat technical, but much more financial in nature as well as having a number of regulatory hurdles.”

What advice do you have for reporters looking to incorporate environmental coverage on the biz beat?

“Environmental concerns are weaving their way more into business. Companies are looking at their carbon footprint and the life cycle of their products, not just in a cradle-to-grave scenario but from cradle to cradle, how those products break down and can be used again.

Patrick O'Grady

Always be skeptical of their claims. Businesses are looking for any way they can to spin their company as green, and in today’s economy they are looking to grab the green niche as a marketing tool. And like any story, watch the money. In Arizona, the stimulus funding has been a boon for the energy-efficiency industry, but so many new people are jumping into the business that it could lead to problems down the line. The same thing is happening in home solar installations as well.”

What is the importance of having an environmental reporter on staff now compared to 10 or 15 years ago?

“The level of environmental awareness is continuing to grow and has either reached the level of tipping point with the mainstream public or is about to. There also are many issues that can be covered from an environmental perspective. Building new freeways, for example, can lead to discussions of clean air and land use issues, as well as the potential of other green transportation methods. Particularly in urban areas, the issues of water, land and sky are becoming increasingly important in the quality of life factor that many businesses use as a determining factor of where they are going to locate and many people use for the same reason.

“There also is a tremendous amount of federal money flowing to green projects that likely will be a springboard for even the non-mainstream ones to become more widely recognized.”

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