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Of all the economic problems facing the United States right now, unemployment may be the most urgent.

Today, President Obama flies to North Carolina to meet with a jobs and competitiveness council he established. They'll meet at a factory that makes energy-efficient lighting. The president is betting that renewable energy will create new jobs.

But notice the verb there. He is making a bet. The administration wants to steer billions of dollars to create new jobs. The challenge is predicting where the money will do the most good.

NPR White House correspondent Ari Shapiro reports.

ARI SHAPIRO: If the Department of Energy were a James Bond film, Arun Majumdar would be Q, the tech whiz who oversees futuristic gadgets. Majumdar's official title is director of the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Energy. He helps steer government investments to new energy technologies, some of which he acknowledges may ultimately fail.

Mr. ARUN MAJUMDAR (Director, Advanced Research Projects Agency for Energy): We don't know which ones are going to win down the line, which ones are going to actually make it in the market and produce, you know, hundreds of thousands of jobs and really change the world.

SHAPIRO: The White House is gambling that one or more of these technologies eventually will produce hundreds of thousands of jobs and change the world. And it's a gamble with real money.

Majumdar's program has received $500 million since President Obama took office. Clean energy projects on the whole have received almost $95 billion. The president is confident that the country will win this bet. Here's how he put it during a recent clean energy event at a factory in Indianapolis.

President BARACK OBAMA: I don't want the new breakthrough technologies and the new manufacturing taking place in China and India. I want all those new jobs right here in Indiana, right here in the United States of America with American workers.

(Soundbite of applause)

Dr. IAN SHEPHERDSON (Chief Economist, High Frequency Economics): The problem is that usually when the economic cycle gets going, it delivers surprises.

SHAPIRO: Ian Shepherdson of High Frequency Economics doubts that the White House or anyone can see into the future with confidence.

Dr. SHEPHERDSON: In the 1990s, the big surprise was the extended tech boom and the birth of the Internet, which no one had predicted very well in advance. And in the cycle of the 2000s, it was the housing boom. This time around, it'll be something else but I would hate to put a guess on where the next big growth sector will be.

SHAPIRO: There are reasons to believe that clean energy is a good investment, though. This part of the economy is small and growing fast. And so far, it gets a good bang for the government buck. The Commerce Department hired economist Robert Pollin of U-Mass Amherst to run the numbers.

Professor ROBERT POLLIN (Economics, University of Massachusetts): If you took the government's stimulus program on green activities, you get 17 jobs more or less per $1 million of expenditure.

SHAPIRO: Seventeen jobs for a million dollars. For comparison's sake, he calculates that the military creates about 11 jobs for every million dollars of investment, and the oil and gas industry produces about five jobs per million dollars. Pollin says clean energy gets a better payoff because kick-starting a new industry requires a lot of manpower.

Prof. POLLIN: There's way more jobs in clean energy, because essentially there's a lot more construction jobs, there's a lot more manufacturing jobs, there's a lot more transportation jobs. So it's really the process of building the new industry that it makes it a good generator of jobs.

Dr. JAGDISH BHAGWATI (Economist, Council on Foreign Relations): How do I hold on to those jobs and prevent them from going over to someone who becomes more competitive?

SHAPIRO: That's the risk, says economist Jagdish Bhagwati of the Council on Foreign Relations. The minute the U.S. masters a technology, he says, another country can come along and snatch the advantage.

Dr. BHAGWATI: The fallacy consists in saying that if I invested so much in a specific activity, that that is going to be a static, permanent, steady-state situation. We are living in a world of flux today.

SHAPIRO: For example, the car. Japan eventually took the lead. Now the American auto industry is back. But nothing is permanent.

Economist Matt Rogers says that's all the more reason the federal government must keep its foot on the clean energy gas pedal. Before Rogers joined McKinsey and Company, he oversaw the Energy Department's clean energy grants through the Recovery Act.

Mr. MATT ROGERS: (Director, McKinsey and Company): The bigger payoff for most of these technologies occurs over time. So you see a very large multiplier on the demand and a very large multiplier on the jobs as these technologies get cheaper.

SHAPIRO: He says while the market can be slow to put its weight behind unusual new technologies, the administration's philosophy is that if you give these strange little snowballs a nudge down the hill so they can start gathering snow, then gravity - or the markets - will keep the best of them rolling and take care of the rest.

Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Washington.

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