The stimulus bill along with the $31B cleantech element focused on grants and loan guarantees through the Department of Energy was passed into law over 18 months ago. About a year ago I wrote about how the cleantech stimulus was not very stimulating to our economy. I suggested at that time that the goals of stimulus and of long-term investment are largely incompatible, and the evidence is bearing that out. At the time, I felt like a bit of an outcast for having such a critical view and yet being an ardent supporter of clean technologies and the need to wean our nation off fossil fuels. On the anniversary of my first post on this topic it seems appropriate to take a fresh look at where things stand.
While stimulus supporters and the press love to focus on the selection of award winners for grants and loans, funds appropriated but sitting in the U.S. Treasury have zero potential to stimulate the economy irrespective of whether a winner has been selected. As of September 10, 2010 and about 19 months after the stimulus became law, according to the Obama Administration’s Recovery Act web site, recovery.gov, the Department of Energy had paid out just over 23% of the $31B of funds appropriated to the department for various cleantech activities under the stimulus bill. At that rate it will take roughly six years for all funds to be dispersed. According to DOE’s more detailed numbers, in the past 12 months, the department has awarded (i.e. selected winners) for about $14B in grants. Less than 10% of that amount has actually been disbursed to date. In addition, there are over 730 awards representing $1.2B that were made in 2009 for which no funds have been paid out at all. Many of these likely still are trying to get their contracts in place, an often-arduous process that can take many months.
In the Smart Grid segment of stimulus, where stimulus actually slowed spending because utilities stopped work to wait and see whether they would win a grant, less than 8% of the over $4B appropriated has been paid out. People in the utility industry who have received grants have told me about calls from DOE staff “virtually begging them” (in the words of one source) to spend money against the grants that have been awarded more quickly. In other words, the government seems more concerned about optics of getting the money spent than having it spent wisely.
As stated on recovery.gov, the goal of the Recovery Act was to “… jumpstart our economy, save and create millions of jobs, and put a down payment on addressing long-neglected challenges so that our country can thrive in the 21st century.” It’s amusing that the recently released Administration Report on the Recovery Act emphasized that its focus would be only on “the ‘Reinvestment’ part of the Recovery Act” and completely avoids any comment on the stimulus’ impact on the economy or jobs. Seems like quite a testament to failure of the recovery spending to provide stimulus in any meaningful way.
If the focus of the cleantech “stimulus” was really on reinvestment, then the government would be careful and diligent about naming grant/loan winners rather than rushing to make awards as fast as possible (which is motivated by stimulus). Yet, while money has been slow to flow from DOE, award winners have been selected for virtually all of the $31B from the recovery program. As I said earlier this year in a Cleantech Forum debate with DOE Renewable Energy Grants Advisor Sanjay Wagle, the government is simply incapable of both getting grant/loan money out the door quickly and spending it wisely. I still maintain that programs like Cash for Clunkers and energy efficiency tax credits (whether you agree with the specific policy or not) have a rapid positive impact on the economy. The evidence on the government’s own recovery site seems to bear that out: by comparison, 77% of all tax-related stimulus benefits (only some of this cleantech-related) have been paid out to recipients in the form of reduced tax obligations. While one can debate the degree of impact those funds may have, funds awarded but not transferred from the federal treasury have no chance of stimulating the economy.
Much of the press focus on the cleantech stimulus has been on the Advanced Research Projects Agency – Energy (ARPA-E) funding into early stage cleantech technologies with “game changing” potential. The government has long played a role in funding early stage research and such a program has worthy goals. Yet, ARPA-E represents only about 1.3% of DOE’s stimulus funding with most other funding going to much less disruptive grant/loan programs in which the government is trying to play business person and has a notoriously bad track record of doing so. And ARPA-E’s appropriation for 2011 is likely to be less than 2010 with the House number passed at a 50% reduction.
The unfortunate reality is that by using the stimulus bill as a vehicle for pushing funds through the slow and ineffectual government bureaucracy rather than focusing on stimulative policies that would have had greater impact on the economy, the Administration may very well have lost the opportunity to enact macro-economic policies affecting the cost structure for energy that could have had much more far-reaching and long-term positive impacts on the goal of reducing our consumption of fossil fuels. I believe time will bear out that many of the grant/loan awards made in such a hurry will turn out to be a waste of money.
Conversely, the macroeconomics of energy are certain to change as finite fossil fuels continue to be consumed… it is only a question of over what time period. It is that reality which is driving the private sector investments that must be the backbone of any sustainable change in our energy economy. Careful federal policy around carbon-based fuels could have provided greater visibility into the time frame and degree of increase in the market cost of fossil fuels even if there was a very slow phase in of such a policy to avoid collapsing the economy. The result would have been greater clarity of when (and shorter time horizons for when) clean technologies could become cost competitive. This would have resulted in a corresponding increase in investment by the private sector in building those businesses to profit from the impending change. And that would have been extremely stimulative to our economy without needing to borrow a penny to fund it.
David Gold is an entrepreneur and engineer with national public policy experience who heads up cleantech investments for Access Venture Partners (www.accessvp.com). This article was first published on his blog, www.greengoldblog.com.