Stimulus Money and the Environment
(Photo: Bruce Gellerman)
The economic stimulus act was the country’s biggest-ever investment in renewable energy and efficiency programs. Supporters say it’s paying off in cleaner energy and green jobs. But some programs are marred by wasteful spending and shoddy work. Living on Earth’s Jeff Young has a progress report on the attempt to stimulate a clean energy economy.
GELLERMAN: President Obama tried to jumpstart the economy by putting federal stimulus money into alternative energy projects. The funds certainly made solar power’s prospects brighter. Two billion dollars in federal loan guarantees have helped launch the world’s largest solar project in California’s Mojave Desert. It’s just one of thousands of clean energy and efficiency projects boosted by the Recovery Act’s stimulus money.
But critics, backed by a federal investigation, say some of the projects also generate waste and fraud. Living on Earth’s Jeff Young has a progress report on the government’s attempt to stimulate a clean energy economy.
YOUNG: The shadow hanging over solar power has always been cost. It’s too pricey to compete with dirtier sources like coal. A small startup in Lexington, Massachusetts, that cradle of American Revolution, is working on a manufacturing solution. Frank van Mierlo is CEO of 1366 Technologies. He shows me a block of pure silicon and part of the price problem—sawing the silicon wafers that become solar cells.
VAN MIERLO: You can imagine that if you saw this that you create about as much sawdust as you have left in wafers, and that’s exactly what happens. You waste half the silicon in sawdust. And what’s worse, the cost of sawing is very costly.
[SOUNDS OF LAB MACHINERY]
YOUNG: The 1366 lab is perfecting a process to pull thin wafers directly from molten silicon. Van Mierlo says it could cut the cost of the wafers 80 percent.
VAN MIERLO: That is significant because the wafer is as much as half of the final module cost. And by dramatically reducing that cost we really are making a genuine step toward making solar cheaper than the cost of coal.
YOUNG: The wind industry wants to harness ocean breezes to power east coast cities. But no one’s sure how offshore turbines will stand up in harsh ocean winds.
[SOUNDS OF SAWING AND HAMMERING]
YOUNG: Rahul Yarala says this structure going up in Boston will put those blades to the test.
YARALA: What’s happening here is we’re building the world’s largest wind turbine blade and structure testing facility.
YOUNG: Yarala directs the Massachusetts Wind Technology Testing Center. The 130 foot long structure will vibrate, twist and otherwise punish the biggest turbine blades, making sure they’re seaworthy. Both these companies have one thing in common: the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, better known as the stimulus act. The solar start up in Lexington got four million dollars. And Yarala says 25 million stimulus dollars rescued the wind test facility from financial meltdown.
YARALA: And without stimulus, my guess is, this would be a parking lot.
YOUNG: Advocates say the stimulus was the single biggest clean energy investment the country has ever made. Kate Gordon at the democratic-leaning think tank, Center for American Progress, puts it at a little more than 80 billion dollars.
GORDON: That was across a range of things, you know, tax credits and grants for renewable energy development, a big program for energy efficiency for low income houses, some infrastructure projects like smart grid and the transmission lines was fairly comprehensive from a clean energy perspective.
YOUNG: Gordon says it’s too soon to fully assess that investment. But a recent analysis shows results from one stimulus program that put some five billion toward renewable energy.
GORDON: That program was very successful. The American Wind Energy Association anticipates that that program saved about 40,000 jobs in the wind industry that otherwise just would have gone away because projects just would have all died.
YOUNG: That study included indirect jobs associated with the spending. But any way you look at it, Gordon says the impact was big. Stimulus money made possible about 60 percent of all the new wind projects in the country last year. Critics of the stimulus act question whether things like that are worth billions of taxpayer dollars. Leslie Paige is with the fiscally conservative watchdog group, Citizens against Government Waste.
PAIGE: You can always throw 862 billion at a problem and say you created jobs, the question is what kind of jobs were they and at what cost?
YOUNG: Paige says the most waste, ironically, came in an efficiency program—home weatherization. Some weatherization programs saw a thousand percent budget increase. Paige points to a recent report from the energy department’s own inspector general. In Illinois, the IG found shoddy work, poor inspection and over-billing.
PAIGE: The program was, even before the stimulus, vulnerable to waste fraud and abuse. And, we were very, very concerned that by shoving even more money, five billion dollars, into the same program with no oversight that you would run into problems. And the audits that we’re seeing now are actually bearing out that prediction.
YOUNG: Similar issues arose for Texas, Wisconsin and Virginia. The Department of Energy says those problems are being addressed. Cathy Zoi is the DOE’s assistant secretary for efficiency and renewable energy.
ZOI: We are now weatherizing 25,000 homes or so a month. The scale of this effort is huge. It is almost inevitable that some people are going to not do the work the right way in the first place, but we have systems in place to ensure that anything that’s not done well, gets fixed.
YOUNG: Reports on wasteful weatherization projects and wind power jobs quickly entered the election year dispute over the stimulus. But those putting stimulus money to work urge a different perspective.
[SOUNDS OF CONSTRUCTION]
YOUNG: Rahul Yarala invites people to come see the hundreds of construction workers putting up the wind testing lab and consider what it could mean beyond the election cycle.
YARALA: I’m an engineer so I gotta stick to my project. Construction jobs for one year, and it’s leaving behind the world’s best lab. I don’t see where the wastage is.
YOUNG: The stimulus act’s effect on the country’s energy economy will be stimulating debate for years to come.
YOUNG: For Living on Earth, I’m Jeff Young in Boston.
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