Thursday, September 22, 2011

Gotta Walk Before You Can Run

By Matthew Tester, Project Associate. 

The clunky implementation of energy efficiency and conservation projects funded by the Recovery Act is giving green jobs a bad name. Dig beyond the headlines, though, and there’s plenty of reason to expect these projects to pay dividends. 

Earlier this month, media outlets picked up on a Department of Energy audit showing that at least one-third of the $2.7 billion Energy Efficiency and Conservation Block Grant (EECBG) funds, which were supplied by the 2009 Recovery Act, had not yet been spent. While the statute requires all funds to be spent by 2012, the Department of Energy had set more aggressive milestones in order to get money and jobs moving. 

Grants were distributed by formula to over 2,000 entities, including states, counties, cities, and reservations, and are intended to fund a wide range of activities designed to reduce energy use, improve energy efficiency, and create jobs. All funds were distributed by the end of 2010, but many jurisdictions are still sitting on cash stockpiles. The problem appears to be that bureaucratic channels of review, permitting, and oversight in some of them are ill-suited to handling the eligible programs. Like my grandfather attempting to make a purchase online, some jurisdictions lacked the tools and familiarity to quickly execute their transactions.

The succession of negative headlines that followed certainly shoved the debate back into public discourse. Opponents of the stimulus and the recent jobs bill gloried in the notion that this kind of investment cannot produce real benefit and create jobs. Supporters countered that spending has accelerated quickly over the last year and is well on track to be completed within required timeframes, even if anticipated milestones have already passed. With federal and state spending cuts looming and a new jobs bill up for debate, programs like this one will surely be on the table.

A recent report by the U.S. Conference of Mayors suggests that American cities derive great benefit from this investment and are committed to clean energy technology and energy efficiency as primary components of strategic planning initiatives. The results of a survey that reached 396 mayors in all 50 states show that energy efficiency and technology deployment support strategic priorities, remove major barriers, and activate other investment. Consider the following findings:

  • 76 percent of mayors expect their cities’ deployment of energy technologies to increase over the next five years
  • Energy strategies are being embraced for primarily economic reasons, such as cost efficiencies (94 percent), attracting new jobs (78 percent), and retaining dollars locally (72 percent)
  • The greatest challenge to scaling up deployment is financial constraints
  • Most mayors expect greater public-private collaboration in deployment of new technologies
  • 87 percent think additional EECBG funds are needed (in no way reflecting party breakdown)

But here’s what I found the most telling finding: cities need to see successful examples before deploying new technologies and programs. And this, I think, helps explain the lag in spending EECBG funds – it’s hard to be a trailblazer. Cities are having to cut new paths, and it’s slow going. Creating brand new programs, authorities, and oversight committees is taking some time. 

The good news is that this one-time dump of cash is going to produce a library of lessons learned and best practices where there are none now. Cities will soon have the benefit of hindsight in their strategic energy planning, which bodes well engaging private partners needing confidence that their money will produce results. With the potential for energy technologies to become so deeply embedded in our economy going forward, this investment could be one of our most prescient. Public investments ought to be heavily scrutinized and debated; I just think this one needs a little time.