Clean Energy Builds Slowly, Despite Federal Cash

July 21, 2010

For the second time in two weeks, President Obama will deliver an economic pep talk at a company that has received Recovery Act funds for electric car batteries. He has recently given similar speeches at companies that create solar panels, wind turbines and biofuel.
The Recovery Act has provided billions of dollars in matching grants for clean energy programs. Despite this massive infusion of federal money, it is unlikely that these technologies will make a dent in Americans' fossil fuel consumption anytime soon.
Clean technologies such as solar and wind power are growing at dramatic rates, says John Denniston of the venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers. "Seven or eight years ago, the solar industry was tiny," he says. "Today, globally the solar energy market is a $50 billion industry. That surpassed, last year, the size of the global online advertising industry."
But those technologies still make up a minute fraction of Americans' energy use.
"Wind energy is about 1 percent of America's total energy supply," says Daniel Yergin, president of IHS Cambridge Energy Research Associates. "Solar is about one-hundredth of 1 percent of our total energy supply."

 

As James Sweeney, who directs the Precourt Energy Efficiency Center at Stanford University, puts it: "You can talk about large percentages of tiny, small numbers and get a 'gee whiz' factor without making much significance to the U.S. economy."
But that doesn't faze Denniston. "Back in 1980, you could have looked at the number of personal computers in the country and said, if you multiply that tenfold, it wouldn't make a difference. Or in 1985, look at the number of cell phones that were being used."