State clean energy funds create jobs and a healthier, safer economy

A new report by the Brookings Institution details the success and benefits of an important mechanism for funding clean energy growth – state clean energy funds.  These funds can be a very effective tool when targeted wisely, and Brookings argues that their expansion could serve as a useful counterweight to the political turmoil in Washington. 

In Congress, some politicians and entrenched interest groups have tried to turn the funding of clean energy into something dirty. They’ve done this loudly, in Congressional hearings, and quietly, by failing to extend important tax provisions that have created tens of thousands of jobs and promoted the development of clean-energy installations in every state in the union.

To these critics, it doesn’t matter that federal support for fossil fuels has outstripped similar support for renewables by a factor of 9 to 1 in the last 60 years. Or, that government underwriting has been instrumental in almost every major technological breakthrough the country has seen since World War II. Consider: the semiconductor; the personal computer; the Internet; and, many of the blockbuster drugs that save the lives of people we love. All were made possible by federal underwriting in conjunction with a vibrant private sector.

To make matters worse, inside-the-Beltway critics of federal support for renewable energy seem unbothered that the US has lost its lead in renewable technologies (technologies it originally invented!) to both China and Germany.

State clean energy funds are investment pools that more than 20 state governments have used to promote clean energy within their borders. The programs, the Brookings report indicates, benefit consumers, businesses and utilities alike. Among their many accomplishments, these programs have pushed down the cost of energy and jumpstarted mom-and-pop solar installation companies. They’ve underwritten important technological breakthroughs that have made electric grids safer and more reliable. Through state CEFs, Americans in 22 states have become investors in the clean-energy progress that will allow our country to become energy self-reliant, and to clear the air of pollution that harms the health of our children and that of our increasingly fragile atmosphere. Such funding has spurred technological breakthroughs that can once again make America the leader in the 21st century’s most important industry: energy.

Combined, these funds’ investments total about $500 million a year, driving the job growth and the technological innovation we need as a nation. (Just remember, the solar industry alone is the nation’s fastest growing, with jobs doubling from 50,000 to more than 100,000 in the last two years.)

We absolutely support the idea that CEF’s have tremendous value through their investments although we would also want to ensure that efforts to expand the scope of these funds sustain their core benefits for utility systems and their customers, and be focused only on support for clean energy technologies.   Here are some highlights from state clean energy funds across the nation:

  • In Ohio, the state’s Advanced Energy Fund has helped fund 660 solar photovoltaic, solar thermal and wind power installations for homeowners, non-profits, houses of worship and businesses. Investments have totaled almost $45 million.
  • As of March, 2011, the New York State Energy Research and Development Agency has saved consumers in the state $895 million in energy annually through cost-effective energy efficiency and renewable energy programs, reducing yearly global-warming pollution by more than 2.3 million tons, the equivalent of taking 460,000 cars off the road each year. Its Clean Energy Business Incubator program has created hundreds of new jobs in start-up companies, leveraged $41 million in private capital and $11 million in federal funding, and resulted in the introduction of 33 new products to serve the clean-energy market.
  • California’s Public Interest Energy Research program, established in the mid-1990s, has funded research that’s led to nearly $38 worth of private investment for every dollar of PIER funding. PIER funding was used to develop syncrophasors that help stabilize electric grids, helping to prevent costly power outages; to create at least five new building and appliance standards that will save utility consumers $1 billion a year by 2020; and to invent a less expensive solar tracking system that boosts efficiency by 15-35 percent.  

Whether state CEFs are small-scale operations like Ohio’s, or nation-leading programs like California’s, each one demonstrates the benefits of public funding for clean energy. Utility consumers save money; businesses and jobs take root; technological breakthroughs that can make our energy system safer, more reliable and far cleaner are given the support they need to flourish. Critics in Congress would do well to take note.