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Clean Energy Builds Slowly, Despite Federal Cash

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Clean Energy Builds Slowly, Despite Federal Cash


Clean Energy Builds Slowly, Despite Federal Cash

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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And if it takes time for green energy to put a dent in the unemployment rate, it will take even longer before green energy will have a meaningful effect on our demand for fossil fuels. NPR's Ari Shapiro reports on the impact the president's clean energy push could have on America's energy consumption.

ARI SHAPIRO: There are a couple of ways to look at the future of clean energy usage in America. Here's the glass-half-full view from John Denniston, a venture capitalist specializing in clean energy.

Mr. JOHN DENNISTON (Venture Capitalist): Seven, eight years ago, the solar industry was a very, very tiny industry. Today, globally the solar energy market is a $50 billion industry. That surpassed, last year, the size of the global online advertising industry.

SHAPIRO: So, glass half full: Green energy is growing fast when few other sectors are. Glass half empty: Here's Daniel Yergin, president of IHS Cambridge Energy Research Associates.

Mr. DANIEL YERGIN (President, IHS Cambridge Energy Research Associates): Wind is about 1 percent of our total energy supply. Solar is about one one-hundredth percent of our total energy supply.

SHAPIRO: So these technologies would have to grow beyond exponentially to make a dent in America's fossil fuel consumption anytime soon. That doesn't faze Denniston.

Mr. 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, you know, in 1985, look at the number of cell phones that were being used and say, well, multiply that by 10 or 100 or 1,000 and it's not going to make a dent in terms of cell phone usage.

SHAPIRO: Hardly anyone was on the internet 20 years ago. Today, more than three-quarters of Americans are on the Web. But Yergin says that analogy is not perfect.

Mr. YERGIN: It's different from the internet because there was nothing that it needed to displace. We didn't have an old Internet that was going to be replaced by a new Internet.

SHAPIRO: In contrast, there are entrenched companies that have been providing energy from oil, coal and natural gas for decades.

President Obama has always said fossil fuels will be a part of America's energy future for a long time to come. Matt Rogers handles Recovery Act grants for the Energy Department.

Mr. MATT ROGERS (Department of Energy): Energy innovation has historically occurred in a multi-decade time frames. So coal showed up in about the 1860s, and by about 1910, it was really humming. Oil started making a big inroad during World War I, and really became the dominant fuel in the 1960s. So it tends to be over those kind of long cycles that you see shifts of double-digit percentages in the usage.

SHAPIRO: The Obama administration is betting that we're at the beginning of such a cycle right now, and they want to make sure the U.S. has a piece of the action. Here's how White House Spokesman Robert Gibbs put it on Tuesday.

Mr. ROBERT GIBBS (White House Spokesman): We're trying to create a new foundation for economic recovery and economic growth along the lines of advanced batteries that gets America competing in the industries of tomorrow, so that when you open up the hood of your Chevy Volt, the battery says Made in America, not made somewhere else.

SHAPIRO: Other countries have been making this investment for years, says Stanford Professor James Sweeney who directs the Precourt Energy Efficiency Center.

Professor JAMES SWEENEY (Stanford University, Precourt Energy Efficiency Center): We're behind much of the world in the energy technologies, even for those where we've invented many of the technologies.

SHAPIRO: While Sweeney supports the new investment in green energy, he says it's not the quickest way to get Americans off fossil fuels.

Mr. SWEENEY: Initiatives to more efficiently use energy can have much larger impacts over the next two decades than we can have by the programs to promote new clean energy supplies.

SHAPIRO: The Obama administration has energy-efficiency programs, but the president doesn't talk about them weekly the way he does clean energy. After all, insulating your house is a lot less sexy than the energy economy of the future.

Ari Shapiro, NPR News, the White House.

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