Alternative Energy eyes push from Washington

WASHINGTON, D.C. - The way Barack Obama has talked it up, alternative energy, efficiency and a better grid, among other projects, could pave a new road for America — the way Dwight Eisenhower's interstate highway effort in the 1950s drove big changes.

The global downturn, credit crunch and sliding price of oil are eroding revenue and stock capitalization in alternative-power industries. But the field stands to benefit under Obama.

"First, we will launch a massive effort to make public buildings more energy-efficient," he said in a Webcast radio address. "Our government now pays the highest energy bill in the world.

We need to change that."

The economic plan Obama has outlined would create at least 2.5 million jobs, he says, and by some estimates cost up to $1 trillion.

"It's pretty clear his first priority is going to be overall economic stimulus and investing a lot of money in the economy," said Michael Holman, an analyst at Lux Research. "Funding some big infrastructure projects is one of the first things he'll take a hard look at."

Besides roads, bridges and schools, infrastructure projects in renewable energy or upgrading the power grid could help the economy by creating jobs, on the way to achieving energy goals. But some won't have commercial impact for a while, Holman says.

The Western Governors' Association recently called for tens of billions of federal dollars annually to tweak energy infrastructure — such as new coal-fired electricity generation emitting nearly no greenhouse gases, and dramatically increased energy from wind, solar, geothermal, hydro and biomass.

Obama talked in Youngstown, Ohio, in August about turning shuttered factories into manufacturing plants for wind turbines and solar panels, and said he hoped in 10 years to eliminate the need for oil from the Middle East and Venezuela.

"To do this, we'll invest $150 billion over the next decade and leverage billions more in private capital," he said.

Asked in an October presidential debate if the U.S. could reduce dependence on foreign oil, Obama said: "We can't drill our way out of the problem. That's why I've focused on putting resources into solar, wind, biodiesel, geothermal."

Congress could consider a bevy of bills, says Neal Elliott, associate research director at the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy. The think tank has contacts among Obama's transition team and on Capitol Hill. There's a lot of interest in investing in U.S. manufacturing, he says.

A sweeping economic stimulus bill is apt to "emerge in the early part of the 111th Congress," possibly in early January, Elliott said. "This would clearly provide some energy-efficiency provisions."

Also on tap are three budget/appropriations bills and possible stand-alone energy and climate bills. Due to complexity, the latter could be delayed till 2010, Elliott says.

"The wild card is what President-elect Obama chooses to introduce as his measures, in what order," he said. "We've been hearing a lot of discussion about the importance of the order in which he introduces the legislation."

Energy has historically been talked about in Btu and kilowatt-hours, but in Washington now it's going to be measured more in jobs created, Elliott says.

The kind of energy initiatives apt to be effective quickly in job creation and other terms, says Lux's Holman, "will be any tax subsidies and credits put in place for energy technologies that are ready-to-go now from a technology standpoint but not economically viable on their own — things like solar, wind and maybe geothermal."

Additional energy tax credits could be on the way soon, as measures to spur energy efficiency and distribution of renewable energy can generate jobs quickly. Workers would be needed to install solar panels, weatherize houses, and replace furnaces and air-conditioning units with high-efficiency models.

"A lot of the money goes into the local community," Elliott said. "You get a lot of trades jobs — this is a fact that certainly has not been lost on the Obama people, or for that matter members on the Hill."

The solar industry is one that could certainly benefit under Obama, analysts say.

"It looks like with the new administration we might have some growth in the United States, which is a very small player when it comes to the global market," said Standard & Poor's analyst Clyde Montevirgen. But he says ramping up the U.S. market may not be enough to offset industry troubles tied to the poor economy. Average selling prices for solar components are sliding.

The rescue package Congress passed in October threw one lifeline to the solar energy industry. Large-scale projects have become easier to plan because tax credits have been extended eight years, and utilities can now claim them.

Expect utility-owned solar-generation projects to appear, as utilities in the next eight to 10 months figure out how to best take advantage of the credits, says Julia Hamm, executive director of the Solar Electric Power Association.

There's optimism about what else might happen under an Obama administration, she says.

"Tax credits are great," Hamm said. "But from a 30,000-foot level there are so many big energy issues that don't just affect solar."

She cites building of new power-transmission facilities, transitioning to a "smart grid" (for more efficient and reliable power management), plug-in hybrid vehicles and decoupling in utility regulation. Decoupling revenue from energy use means a utility could encourage energy efficiency without hurting profits or the ability to cover costs, for instance by adding small rate hikes as use declines.

Obama wants a million U.S.-built, 150 mpg plug-in hybrids on roads in six years — supported partly with tax credits to buyers and automakers.

By the end of his first term, the president-elect wants to double the amount of the nation's energy that comes from renewable sources, funded partly by investments in clean-technology R&D and renewables tax incentives.

He has suggested $500 per person in emergency energy tax credits, funded by a windfall tax on oil company profits.

Obama also has cited hopes for nuclear and coal, and "working to modernize our national utility grid so it can accommodate these new power sources without being overrun by blackouts."

Bottlenecks are one reason an upgrade will be needed before any vast electricity generation from renewables. And Obama wants 10% of U.S. electricity to come from renewables by 2012.


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