WASHINGTON -- What has America gotten so far from President Barack Obama’s spending on clean energy, and has it been worth the cost?
The multibillion-dollar outlays of the past four years had equally big goals: putting people to work right away, but also future jobs in a growing global endeavor to cut pollution and the risks from climate disruption.
The federal spending has become an issue in the 2012 campaign. Republicans say the federal government squandered taxpayers’ money, whether it was on $27-a-gallon biofuels for a test of an aircraft carrier battle group last month, subsidies for renewable energy or the taxpayers’ loss of $535 million to the bankrupt solar manufacturer Solyndra.
Four years ago, the Democrats’ promises on clean energy were all about jobs. As Obama took office seeking nearly $1 trillion in spending and tax cuts to boost a free-falling economy, he wanted to include green energy spending and he stressed the job benefits.
“We’ll put nearly half a million people to work building wind turbines and solar panels, constructing fuel-efficient cars and buildings, and developing the new energy technologies that will lead to new jobs,” he said on Jan. 16, 2009, in a speech pitching the stimulus proposal.
On jobs, the promise fell short. The White House said its clean-energy stimulus funds created 224,500 jobs. An independent study this year concluded that 70,000 jobs were added to clean technology industries from 2007 to 2010. That study was done by the Brookings Institution, the Breakthrough Institute and the World Resources Institute.
Obama and his team argued that spending on clean energy would have other benefits. They said it would help the United States get some of the renewable energy manufacturing that otherwise would go to China, where energy technology is subsidized. It also would create jobs in the future and help the environment.
“Whenever the government has been involved in so-called stimulus, it’s really more than stimulus,” said Diane Lim Rogers, the chief economist for the Concord Coalition, a budget watchdog that advocates for fiscal responsibility.
The 2009 stimulus, she said, was aimed at helping people make ends meet, increasing demand for goods and services in order to create jobs, and making a long-term shift in the way resources are used in order to better reflect social values and costs.
In the case of the clean-energy spending, that third part included a way of addressing climate change.
Renewable energy doubled from 2006 to 2011 and prices fell, according to the Brookings-Breakthrough-WRI report.
Construction began on the first nuclear power plant in more than 30 years, and U.S. companies got a share of the market in advanced batteries and vehicles. But nearly all clean-tech industries depend on subsidies or other supports in order to compete with oil and gas.
After spiking to $44.3 billion per year in 2009 with the first year of the stimulus, federal support for clean technology is on track to total $11 billion annually by 2014.
“Judged by the standards of short-term job creation, the energy investments may not have performed brilliantly,” said Mark Muro of Brookings, one of the authors of the report.
“However, over the medium and longer term, these programs will in time be viewed as critical investments in research and development, early-stage deployment and broader scale-up of important new technologies.”