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States Hope Obama Will Boost Funds for Renewable Energy

  • Julia Ritchey

Wind, solar and biofuels. These are the so-called renewable energy sectors President Barack Obama wants to use to create green jobs to stimulate the battered U.S. economy. But renewable energy projects already have been successfully launched, with less fanfare, in a handful of states over the past several years. The states' political and business leaders are hoping the new administration will pump additional funding into these job-creating green projects.

Dairy farm power example of successful state effort

America's dairy capital is the midwestern state of Wisconsin - population 1.4 million cows. With so many large-scale dairy farms in operation, the state devised a method of extracting from cow manure vast amounts of methane and carbon dioxide. These gases can fuel an engine that can generate electricity for the farm or be sent to the local electric utility grid. The leftover manure solids are used as nitrogen-rich fertilizer, and the remaining liquid is sprayed onto crops as needed.

Wisconsin's cow-powered energy initiative is one of more than 50 thousand renewable energy projects now under way in 20 states that have earmarked funds for such initiatives. They have organized themselves into a nonprofit coalition called the Clean Energy States Alliance. In addition to lobbying for more federal energy funding, the organization serves as a clearinghouse for projects that range from installing solar panels on public buildings to converting manure into electricity.

Don Wichert, director of Wisconsin's Focus on Energy Program, spearheaded the dairy farm power project. He says there were zero farms in the state with biogas digesters six years ago; today there are 22, with 12 more farms under contract.

"It's a great process. It produces electricity, heat. It also reduces odor, which is a major issue for large farms," Wichert says. "It reduces flies. It reduces pathogens. And if you put the whole package together, it's fairly cost effective for farmers to do. We're seeing paybacks in the range of five to seven years."

Projects create jobs, reduce energy consumption

The Wisconsin dairy initiative is one of five top projects recognized recently by the Clean Energy States Alliance in Washington, D.C.

Alliance President Lewis Milford said at a news conference that these model projects are ideal candidiates for the Obama Administration's promised clean energy funding.

"Our view is, if there is a clean energy part of the stimulus package, that it's important to have a delivery mechanism that gets money out the door quickly and does it well," he says. "Right now, there are at least 20 states that have clean energy funds that are really the infrastructure around the United States for clean energy projects. They know how to do projects. They have been doing it for years, and they have a backlog. They have the capacity to do more."

In Massachusetts, the Department of Energy Resources found a way around state funding shortfalls on a project trying to bring solar power to low-income housing projects. They aggregated one megawatt (one thousand kilowatts) of solar electric capacity and sold it on the private energy market as a tax credit. They used the capital to install the solar panels on seven low-income housing sites across the state.

Philip Giudice, the department's commissioner, says these projects not only help the most economically vulnerable, but reduce the state's overall energy consumption.

"Overall we spent about a billion dollars on energy, and we estimate that if we had on the order of $500 million, we could bring down that energy consumption by 20 or 25 percent…" he says. "Public housing, in particular, is a prime example of where small amounts of money can have tremendous impact. Most of our public housing, as it is across the country, was built in the 1970s and 1980s, and they still have refrigerators in there that use two or three times as much electricity as modern refrigerators use for that exact same purpose."

Giudice says these types of projects also get skilled construction workers back to work in the housing industry, which took an enormous hit as the U.S. economy spiraled into recession last year.

"The work that would be involved with that is work that existing tradespeople could do. So we don't have to create a whole new level of expertise to make this happen," he says. "They'll be some training involved in quality control and so forth. But it's contractors. It's construction folks. It's electricians. It's plumbers that can get into these projects and really make a difference."

Backlog of clean energy projects awaits funding

Still, more than half the states in the country lack the funds for job-creating renewable energy projects. Milford suggests money be set aside in the stimulus package for other states to kick start their own clean energy programs.

"That's the beauty of the state-level approach is that instead of having a top-down, federal, one-size-fits-all program, you have states experimenting with success and failure," he says. "The states that are succeeding then can simply be copied in other states. And this happens very quickly, very readily. States are sharing this information in real time."

Milford says the conventional wisdom is to turn to roads, bridges and highways when something needs to be built. Yet there is an enormous backlog of clean energy projects equally deserving of funding. With many states facing budget shortfalls this year, Milford believes federal funds could make all the difference in making these green collar jobs a reality.

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