Green Power, Efficiency Retrofits Front & Center in Obama Jobs Plan

More than 7.2 million jobs have been lost in the U.S. since the start of the recession, and President Obama sees home retrofits for boosting energy efficiency and the expansion of highly competitive stimulus programs for green energy projects as two of the keys for turning that trend around.

In a speech this morning at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., the president urged legislators to “consider a new program to provide incentives for consumers who retrofit their homes to become more energy-efficient” and proposed “that we expand select Recovery Act initiatives to promote energy efficiency and clean energy jobs which have been proven to be particularly popular and effective.”

Today’s speech comes on the heels of reports that the White House has been considering a 2-year, $23 billion program to encourage homeowners to undertake weatherization projects such as adding air sealing, insulation and energy-saving lightbulbs — dubbed the “cash for caulkers” program — widely cheered, unsurprisingly, by the home energy retrofit industry.

Overall, the U.S. home energy retrofit market is poised to grow about 15 percent per year to $35 billion by 2013, up from $20.7 billion last year, according to a recent report from SBI Energy. But all is not rosy in the world of energy-efficiency startups. Business leaders surveyed earlier this year expressed a belief that a turnaround for these companies could hinge on more incentives and legislation from the government. Interest in energy-efficiency projects among North American businesses is growing, but oftentimes is not leading to actual investments in the technology because they just can’t spare the cash.

Getting a second chance at government funding for efficiency and energy projects could also provide a shot in the arm for companies that lost out in earlier funding rounds of popular programs. This morning Obama declared it “a positive sign that many of these programs drew so many applicants for funding that a lot of strong proposals — proposals that will leverage private capital and create jobs quickly — did not make the cut.”

The Department of Energy’s high-risk green energy fund, ARPA-E (Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy), offers one of the most dramatic illustrations of this. For the 99 percent of proposals that did not receive funding under the program’s first, $151 million round of grants, Secretary of Energy Steven Chu said the agency may opt to host a fair to let venture capitalists sniff them out as possible investments.

For some ventures, however, the prospect of new funding opportunities may come too late. Battery developer Imara, for example, has just called it quits after failing to secure financing for a planned scale-up of its production capacity. And green car developer Aptera’s marketing chief, Marques McCammon, told Wired’s Autopia recently that the company — which is delaying production of its inaugural vehicle in the face of dwindling cash reserves — now finds itself “at a strategic disadvantage to some of the other companies in this space” that have received government funds.

According to the Obama administration, efforts to promote job creation in the green energy and efficiency markets are not just about the more direct impacts of reducing power consumption (and the associated emissions) and utility bills, and stimulating economic activity. They are also meant to position the U.S. as a major player in the global market for this equipment and technology.

As White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said in a media briefing yesterday, “[T]here’s a short-, medium- and long-term benefit to establishing our nation as the clean energy leader of the world. Somebody is going to build millions of solar panels. Somebody is going to build wind towers and wind turbines and create the power that’s going to light our homes and heat our homes and cool our homes for decades to come. The question is, which country is that going to be?”

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

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