WASHINGTON — As Congress gets to work this week on an economic stimulus plan, environmentalists are arguing that installing more wind and solar energy, making homes and government buildings less dependent on fossil fuels and expanding mass transit would be the best way to add jobs quickly and jolt the economy.
Environmental groups cheered last week when President-elect Barack Obama said the U.S. should use the stimulus package to double its production of renewable energy in three years and cut its use of fossil fuels by modernizing more than 75 percent of federal buildings and improving the energy efficiency of 2 million homes.
The questions now, however, are whether Obama's plan will sail through Congress or clash with other interests, and whether environmentalists will be able to use the recovery package to press other of their ideas, including installing solar panels on school roofs and spending money on mass transit instead of new highways.
Indeed, shifting money away from highway construction to other transportation uses will be one of the most difficult aspects of pressing home a green agenda as part of the stimulus package, said Anna Aurilio of the state-based organization Environment America. Companies that benefit from federal dollars for highway construction are a powerful lobbying opponent.
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"Right now the funding is completely backwards. Eighty cents of every federal transportation dollar is for highways, and only 20 cents for transit," Aurilio said.
Studies show mass transit would add more jobs than building new highways, and that there are $30 billion in transit projects around the country that would be ready to start in four to 18 months, she said. Her group also calls for a "fix it first" plan that would spend highway dollars on repairs rather than adding roads.
"As this plan moves to Congress, it is vitally important that the government focuses on investing in newer, cleaner, more efficient technology and not wasting money on costly, business-as-usual approaches like new coal plants, dams, or 'highways to nowhere,'" Sierra Club director Carl Pope said in a statement last week in response to Obama's plan.
Pope added that the Sierra Club would try to keep the stimulus plan "focused on the priorities that will provide short-term economic recovery and long term economic stability and a cleaner, safer world."
On Sunday during a rare weekend session of the Senate, Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., said the stimulus plan should include $1 billion in grants to spur the production of batteries for electric vehicles in the United States.
Most of the technology for lithium ion batteries was invented in the United States, but Pacific Rim countries now are producing nearly all these batteries "as a result of years of financial support from their governments," Levin said.
The wind and solar industry also are arguing for government support in order to create American jobs. They want Congress to get capital flowing to them again by changing the way tax incentives work. Companies hurt by the economic downturn aren't able to benefit from tax credits as they did when they made profits and paid more taxes in better times. The industry wants a refund instead of a writeoff.
Tax incentives would get capital flowing to renewable energy — mainly wind, solar and geothermal energy — and expand manufacturing capacity in the United States. Both solar and wind companies have been forced to close factories and lay off workers in the recent downturn.
Studies show that energy efficiency and renewable energy are the cheapest way to make the sharp greenhouse gas emissions reductions scientists warn will be necessary to avoid serious climate disruption, said Joe Mendelson, director of climate policy at the National Wildlife Federation.
Existing solar and wind technology works and can be competitive he said. There will be improvements in the next 50 years, but for now, Mendelson said, "wind and solar are ready to go, and we think there's endless potential to do it."
Seventeen environmental groups sent a detailed list of more than 80 stimulus proposals to Obama in early December. They argued their plans could create 3.6 million jobs.
Mendelson said the National Wildlife Federation would like to see a government boost for solar begin on the rooftops of the nation's schools. Not only would schools save on heating and cooling bills but high school students could get job training as part of the plan and solar schools would symbolize a national drive for a cleaner future, he said.
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