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Clean Energy Stimulus Cash Is Slow to Be Spent 

Wednesday, Jun 8 2011

When he isn't busy defending the (alleged) circumstances of his birth, President Barack Obama likes to tout the importance of clean-energy projects to the future of the American economy. "In the years ahead, it's clean-energy companies ... that will keep our economy growing, create new jobs, and make sure American remains the most prosperous nation in the world," he said last month in Indiana.

Obama's rhetoric on the clean-power Moon Shot is backed up by dollar signs. The 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act included more than $80 billion for renewable-energy and energy-efficiency projects. Of that, about $7.7 million was allotted to the city of San Francisco. But it turns out that the money's use doesn't quite conform to starry-eyed visions of a future in which windmills, solar farms, and geothermal plants meet the energy needs of an America whose residents' skin is tinted chlorophyll-green.

The city's stimulus money is, rather, being used for a number of comparatively pedestrian purposes: insulating buildings, refurbishing old water heaters, and replacing light fixtures. From a purely economic perspective, there's nothing wrong with this. Tyrone Jue, spokesman for the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, says that the city has been able to hire small businesses to perform these projects, injecting needed cash into the local economy.

That brings up another reality of clean-energy stimulus spending: The money has been going out slowly. San Francisco has so far used roughly $3.8 million, or about half, of its ARRA grant money, according to figures provided by the PUC. Jue notes that this is on track with benchmarks laid out by the U.S. Department of Energy, which wants half or more of the grant to be spent by the end of this month.

Yet at the city's Department of the Environment — the other major recipient agency for clean-energy stimulus money, along with the PUC — things are moving more slowly. The department has about $2.8 million of incentives to give out to property owners looking to improve the energy efficiency of their homes. (Some $1.8 million of that money is dedicated exclusively to updating water heating systems.) It has spent only about $650,000, or 23 percent of the funds, according to figures provided by spokesman Mark Westlund. Ahead-of-pace spending by the PUC has made up for this and kept the city in line, overall, with federal mandates.

Why is it that incentive programs have lagged behind? For one thing, the PUC, since it is concentrating on government facilities, doesn't have to spend time marketing its programs or waiting for private residents to bite — it can simply design and implement projects as it is able. Westlund says that the spending of home-efficiency incentive money is ramping up. "With anything, you're rolling out a new program and making people aware of the fact that it's out there," he says. For the present, in San Francisco, it appears that Obama's clean-energy Moon Shot hasn't gotten too far off the ground.

About The Author

Peter Jamison


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