Clean Infrastructure

The Key to the Fall Debate: Staying Focused on the Economy

The last few months have not been particularly good ones for Democrats.  That's the bad news.  The good news is there a clear roadmap for how they can use the coming months to get back on track, and it revolves around staying relentlessly focused on the economy and the struggle of every day people.  

1) The Lack of Income Growth for Average Families is the Greatest Domestic Challenge Facing America Today.   Depending on how you cut the data, American families have not seen their incomes rise in at least eight, and perhaps, ten years.  Even in the Bush recovery, which was by many measures, robust, median incomes declined, poverty levels increased, debt loads exploded.  The typical American family ended the Bush era making $1,000 less than at the beginning. 

Basic economics tells us when productivity increases wages and incomes rise.  When GDP expands, jobs are created at a certain rate.  Neither of these events took place in the Bush era, leading us here at NDN to argue that there is a large structural change being brought about by globalization that is making it harder for the American economy to create jobs and raise the standard of living of every day people.

That median incomes dropped during a robust economic recovery made the Bush recovery different from any other recovery in American history, and has made the current Great Recession different from other recessions.  The American consumer was already in a very weakened state before the current recession, which is why the recession has been more virulent than many predicted, and why the coming "recovery" might be so anemic.  The economy seems to be going through profound, structural change, making old economic models anachronistic.  We are literally in a "new economy" now, one that is not well understood, and one that is confusing even the President's top advisers. 

Simply put, getting people's incomes up is the most important domestic challenge facing those in power today.  It is not surprising that other issues like health care, energy policy and climate change are being seen through a prism of "will this make my life, my economic struggle better today?" because so many families have been down so long, and things have gotten an awful lot worse this year.   Regardless of what they hope to be graded on by the public, the basket of issues that will do more to determine the success of the President and his Party is both the belief that things are getting better, and the reality that they are for most people. 

2) The Public Believes the Economy Is By Far and Away the Most Important Issue Facing the Nation Today.   In poll after poll this year, the public has made it clear that the economy is their most important issue, with really nothing coming in a strong number two.  The new Pew poll out this week maintains the basic ratio we have seen for months: mid 50s say the economy is number one; 20 percent of the American people say health care is their number one concern; and literally "zero" pick energy (see the chart to the right).

While one could mount an argument that one should not govern by polls, one can also ignore them at their own peril.  The country wants their leaders focusing on what is their number one concern - their ability to make a living and provide for their families in a time of economic transformation - which also happens to be, in this case, the most important domestic issue facing the country. 

My own belief is that one of the reasons the President and the Democrats have seen their poll numbers drop is that they have spent too much time talking about issues of lesser concern to people while the economy has gotten worse.   There is a strong argument to be made that the President and the Democrats have taken their eye of the economic ball, and are paying a price for it.  This doesn't mean the President shouldn't be talking about health care, climate change, education, immigration reform, but they must be addressed in ways that reflects both their perceived and actual importance; and as much as possible discussed in the context of long term and short term benefit for every day people and not abstract concepts like "recovery," "growth," "prosperity," which in this decade are things that have happened to other people. 

We have long believed that the lack of a sufficient governmental response to the increasing struggle of every day people has been the central driver of the volatility in the American electorate in recent years (see here and here).  Given the poll and economic data of recent months it is possible that the conditions which have created this volatility remains, and simply cannot be ignored for too long.

3) The Way Forward - Make The Struggle of Every Day People The Central Focus Of the National Debate.    The great domestic challenge facing President Obama is to ensure that, in this new age of globalization and the "rise of the rest," the country sees not "growth" or "recovery" but prosperity that is broadly shared.  Until incomes and wages are rising again, fostering broad-based prosperity has to be the central organizing principle of center-left politics.  It is a job we should be anxious to take on given our philosophical heritage, and one that we simply must admit is a little harder and more complex than many have led us to believe.  

Luckily, the President has been given three significant events in September to begin to make this rhetorical and governing turn - Labor Day next week, and the G20 and UN General Assembly meetings in late September.  He can use this events to re-knit together his argument, weaving in health reform and energy/climate change (and we believe immigration reform too) along the way.  For there is no broad-based prosperity in 21st century America without health care costs coming down (which has to happen to allow us to cover more people), and a successful transition to a low-carbon economy.  Even though the Congressional committee and legislative process requires these to be separate conversations, in fact they are one conversation, one strategy for 21st century American success, one path forward for this mighty and great nation. 

Vice President Biden's speech about the economy today is a very good start in this needed repositioning.  But much more must be done.  In a recent essay I wrote:

There have been calls from some quarters for a 2nd stimulus plan, an acknowledgment that what the first stimulus has not done enough to stop the current economic deterioration.  This may be necessary, but I think what will need to be done is much more comprehensive than just a new stimulus plan.  Future action could include a much more aggressive action against foreclosures, a more honest assessment of the health of our financial sector, an immediate capping of credit card rates and a rollback of actions taken by credit card issuers in the last few months, a speeding up of the 2010 stimulus spending, a completion of the Doha trade round and a much more aggressive G20 effort to produce a more successful global approach to the global recession, the quick passage of the President's community college proposal, enacting comprehensive immigration reform which will bring new revenues into the federal and state governments while removing some of the downward pressure on wages at the low end of the workforce, and recasting both the President's climate and health care initiatives as efforts which will help stop our downward slide and create future growth.

These are some thoughts on how to re-engage the economic conversation but many other people also have great ideas on what to do now that the specter of a true global depression has been averted, and we have the luxury of talking about what to do next.  Which is why NDN is launching a new series of discussions on the global and American economies.  We begin next week with Dr Jagdish Bhagwati and Dr. Rob Shapiro.  Keep checking back on our site for the next events in this important new series based in Washington, DC but also webcast for anyone to watch no matter where they are.

The bottom line - the recent decline in the President's poll numbers are reversible.  The key is for he and his Party to make the struggle of every day people their number one rhetorical and governing concern.  A "new economy" is emerging in America, and it is not has been kind to most Americans.  Getting incomes and wages up in this new economy of the 21st century is in fact the most important dmoestic challenge facing the country, and one the American people are demanding a new national strategy for.  This fall is the time for the President to make it clear to the American people that he understands their concerns, has a strategy to ensure their success in this new economy, and will make their success the central organizing principle of his Administration until prosperity is once again broadly shared.

Removing Roadblocks to the Growth of Renewables

New York City - On Friday, the US Energy Information released new monthly statistics for renewable energy output as well as output of traditional forms of power.  The good news is that renewable energy in May, the latest month for which statistics have been compiled, is at its all time highest level, accounting for 13% of total power.  The bad news, however, is that the vast majority of this, about 9.4% comes from traditional hydropower.  The other renewables, wind, solar, biomass and geothermal accounted for just 3.6%.   Wind accounts for 1.8, biomass, 1.3%, geothermal 0.4% and solar 0.3% of the total. 

All of the sources of renewables grew, but the growth rates were modest.  Wind grew year-on-year by 12.5% and solar by only 3.5%.  These growth rates might be passable for mature technologies with a huge starting base.  However, for comparatively new technologies with a tiny denominator, these growth rates are not impressive.  True, the data do not reflect the full force of the Investment Tax Credit (for solar installations) extended last fall and the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act passed this winter--because of the lag in the data.  Still they tell at best a story of an industry surviving the recession.  They do not tell a story of economic rebirth based on the promise of a low carbon future.

There are reasons to hope clean energy would be growing much faster than these rates--the goal of lowering greenhouse gas emissions--essential to addressing climate change--and the goal of creating a new wave of clean technology-driven growth.  (The goal of energy security is less dependent on renewable technologies since coal is present in the United States but is nonetheless also served by replacing oil in our nation's energy mix.) 

However, there are also reasons to expect clean energy to be growing far faster than it is: the declining cost curves of renewables relative to fossil fuels, the large subisidies the government has put in place and the huge push America is making, from the President's speeches to the T.Boone Pickens Plan for energy independence on down.  In many states, renewable energy is even mandated through a Renewable Electricity Standard.  Looking abroad, Germany produces 7% of its power from wind, about four times what the US does and Spain's solar power capacity grew 364% in 2008.  Now that is the type of growth needed to have a real effect!  The fact is US growth rates in renewable industry are not meeting reasonable expectations for clean energy growth, let alone desirable targets.

I have been studying the question of why clean technology is moving so slowly into the marketplace in the United States and my research suggests that adoption of clean technology and renewable energy must be about more than pricing and incentives.  It is about decisionmaking and removing obstacles to the deployment of clean energy.  These obstacles are present, once you peer into the complex world of the electricity industry,in a host of non economic barriers to implementation.

To understand why clean energy is not--even with large incentives in place--displacing dirtier forms of energy, it is important to recall the extraordinarily complex nature of the industry.  Like all large industries, the electricity industry has incumbents.  These incumbents--unlike say car manufacturers or computer companies, are protected by regulation.  During the 1990s, the industry was partially deregulated so that market forces were introduced in some parts of the industry in some regions.  However, the work of regulatory reform proceeded only part way leaving the industry in a sort of limbo  Today, some regions of the country have wholesale competition.  Others have limited retail competition.  Still others have wholly vertically integrated companies supplying their customers with soup to nuts service unchanged from a half century ago.  And there is limited trade in electricity, this in an era, when frozen dinners served in the United States are made in Thailand and fresh flowers cut in Bolivia.

Indeed the electricity industry is quite rare today in remaining geographically divided.  With some exceptions it is illegal for a utility in one region to sell to customers in another.  There is effectively no such thing as national competition. There are, of course, many precedents for these legalized restraints on trade.  Banking used to be organized this way prior to reforms in the 1980s and 1990s.  Telecommunications after the breakup of Ma Bell but before the 1996 Telecom bill and development of national communications services was similarly organized by region.  In the case of electricity, besides the legal restraints on trade there are major physical restraints in the form of lack of capacity on the grid to move power where it is needed.

The absence of universal market allocation of power, means that decisionmaking--of what types of power to buy, what types of clean technology to implement and what types of infrastructure to build--is left, frequently to a small group of decisionmakers who are also incumbents and have a rational bias towards decisions supporting their incumbent position.  A transformative technology, for example, could reduce the value of their legacy assets.  Building a new transmission line to connect wind power to the grid, may make a plant they own obsolete.  It may therefore be entirely rational for them to discourage rather than encourage the deployment of new technology. 

It would be one thing if the decisionmakers were acting on their own.  However, typically they make decisions under the rate base system that provides a guaranteed rate of return on anything they can place in the rate base.  This would ordinarily incent them toward overinvestment.  However, since regulators oversee these rate cases and generally try to lower costs, the decisionmakers at utilities have a conflicting mandate to gain a high rate of return but also keep costs down.  This can lead to a bias toward investments that pay off immediately and against investments that pay off longer term.

The upshot is that getting the type of growth rates of renewables needed to unlock the economic and social potential of clean energy is likely to take more than economic incentives and mandates.  It may well require reform to remove obstacles to the deployment of new technology.

The energy bills now working their way through Congress contain some measures to address these problems.  But my research suggests more work needs to be done.

The Future of the American Car

This week the Center for Automotive Research in Detroit is holding its annual conference on the future of cars.  Entitled “Today's Turmoil: a Foundation for Success”, the four day conference allows the global industry to hear the insights of people like Akio Toyoda, the new president of Toyota who is shaking up the company started by his grandfather and discuss subjects such as manufacturing and how to make sustainable cars.  A new face this year: Ed Bloom of the US Auto Task Force in the role of the industry's new partner, government.

With global sales down almost 50% from their peak, it has, indeed, been a brutal year for the industry, especially so for the Big Three, now really One and a Half.   From this new low base, however, the industry is certain to rebound.  The question is whether it will rebound in America or whether the center of gravity of auto manufacturing will continue to shift away.  After the decades-old decline of the Big Three's market share, all the management studies and manufacturing initiatiaves, capped by GM and Chysler’s bankruptcy filings, some would argue the US industry is past recovery.  I disagree. 

I believe US carmakers can be part of the global rebound.  I also believe they must be if the US is to benefit from the clean economic revolution.  However, recovery of the industry won't come easy.   The US car industry needs to reinvent itself with help from policymakers and by listening to people outside the industry, especially the customer..  The good news it that auto manufacturing tends toward decentralization.  The weight of cars, variations in standards by country and a healthy measure of politics combines to encourage localized production.  There is no risk yet of a laptop-style shift of the entire industry to Asia.  The challenges are best described as severe but surmountable.  Here are six things the US auto industry needs to do to re-emerge in strong shape from the Great Recession of which government has a role in three:

First the industry needs to rediscover innovation.  In its glory days, passionate engineers invented new tires, transmissions, solutions to the problem of knock, the octane system of gasoline, ball bearings and other breakthrough technologies of the day, the equivalent of Twitter or Facebook or in the auto industry, new battery technologies, electric drive trains, carbon fiber materials, computerization, and energy economy technologies today.  One idea would be for US car companies to put venture capitalists from Silicon Valley or prominent scientists on their boards and move their R&D operations to Silicon Valley.   VC-backed Tesla, for example, is making major strides from its Palo Alto base. Palo Alto-based Better Place is similarly working with Renault and Nissan to pioneer new charging technology for an all electric car.  Cars are a technology product and it is time to remember this.  They are also a lifestyle product.  The Big Three should draw more design inspiration from places like New York and Los Angeles.  In its early days, GM had its headquarters in New York and it would behoove the industry to reconnect with centers of excellence across the country.

Second, the US car industry needs to recapture its ability to anticipate changes in consumer taste.  In My Years at General Motors, Alfred Sloan discussed how hard this always was, yet how essential: “Even though it takes years to develop a new product, it is our job to be ready with it when there is an effective demand”.  He was describing a problem that bedeviled the industry even in1957: a sudden desire by Americans for small cars—something in which the rest of the world even then excelled due to smaller streets, high priced gas and shorter distances—that caused imports to leap.  In that crisis, the Big Three responded with cars like the Corvair a year later to recapture the lower end of the market and bring imports from 10% back down to a negligible level.  The Big Three were far less successful after the oil shocks of the 1970s when imports began building market share.  They face an even sterner challenge in the wake of last year’s oil shock.  Message: be ready with small cars when they are needed.  And in the wake of climate change which is not going away: improve fuel efficiency.

Third, the US industry must try to reinvigorate its supplier base which has suffered even more than the OEMs in recent years.  A focused effort by industry to source locally and government support to high tech companies making batteries and other parts can help fuel the substrate necessary to a sound industry going forward.  Alan Mullaly at Ford is already shifting Ford toward greater outsourcing of parts.  To insure long term sustainability, it is important to rebuild the North American infrastructure.  As discussed below, this should be an element of negotiation with companies entering the US market.

Fourth, much has been made of the so-called cost disadvantage of the Big Three’s legacy costs which supposedly added $2,000 to the value of each car.  In fact, the appropriate way to deal with liabilities was always on the balance sheet as a capital item not as an operating one.  The GM and Chrysler bankruptcies put an end to much of this liability.  However, properly accounted for and written down, these legacy costs should be a footnote on the balance sheet, not a drag on operating profit..

Fifth, much has similarly been made of the supposedly high wages paid by US carmakers relative to foreign companies that have set up shop in the South.  While the gap is overstated, labor costs are lower in the South due to lower costs and the absence of unionization.  Here the US needs to act carefully but act on labor rules that have created an unfair playing field.  Due to our state system of regulation, the US has both right to work states and others where unionization is common.  Taking advantage of US federalism, foreign manufacturers even if their own countries are 100% union have set up shop in the South. A notable exception to this stratifaction is the unionized Toyota NUMMI facility in Fremont, California, where GM was a partner however, there is talk of Toyota closing that plant in the wake of GM’s pullout.

The answer to this is not heavy handed change in our federalist system.   However, as Bob Reich has argued, the US, as a whole, loses when states and even towns bid against one another for new factories.  He proposed a body or at least baseline standards to negotiate on behalf of American manufacturing sites.  It would not be unreasonable to require new factories to offer employees a chance to organize at some point after the plant is built, require some level of local sourcing of parts and at least try to negotiate for research and development investments.  Until other countries relax their standards for foreign investment, we should not give away the store.

Sixth, and here government is the critical player, the industry needs a reasonable exchange rate.  For about a quarter century, since the end of the 1982 recession, a high dollar has benefited our financial sector at the expense of manufacturing.  Something similar happened in England’s transition from manufacturing to finance capitalism in the late 19th Century when it shifted from a trade surplus to deficit (driving a quest for colonies.).  The dangers of over reliance on finance are clear.  Recently, Laura Tyson floated the idea of retooling our economy more toward investment and manufacturing in lieu of finance, in part, by lowering the value of the dollar.  Dollar policy is not something that is widely discussed or even understood yet it has an immense effect on the structure of our economy.  Perhaps like war it is too important to be left to the generals and should be the subject of an open and intellectually rigorous academic and industry discussion.

In short, cars will continue to be built in the United States.  The question is whether we will be leaders or followers, designing the breakthrough cars of the future, or building cars introduced somewhere else a few years earlier.

To this point, of the top 5 cars purchased under the Cash for Clunkers program, four bear Japanese nameplates.   (The rankings are Toyota Corolla, Ford Focus, Honda Civic, Toyota Camry and Toyota Prius.)  Of these, all but the Prius are largely made in the United States and Toyota will begin making the Prius in Mississippi next year.  While Japanese, German and Korean investment in factories in the United States is a win win, creating jobs, economic activity and tax revenues, it does not amount to leadership. 

In conclusion, the US auto industry faces huge challenges.  But the bottom of a cycle creates opportunity and the decks are now clear for a rebound.  It was not long ago that the US industries—after suffering through the 1980s--mounted a partial comeback, improving quality and inventing breakthrough products of the day such as the minivan and SUV—formats soon copied by others.  US industry and policymakers should begin taking action now to lead recovery when it inevitably comes.


Jack Hidary at NDN Event on Cash for Clunkers

With the Senate considering refilling (sorry) the funds for "Cash for Clunkers," here's a video of clean-tech entreprenuer Jack Hidary speaking about such a program last year at an NDN Green Project event on "Energy and the American Way of Life." Jack calls the proposal "Jack's Jalopy Law," but it's the same idea.

More Cash For Clunkers

The extraordinary success of the Cash for Clunkers program--$1 billion worth of credits dispensed in about a week--is an outstanding validation of the power of green stimulus that we at NDN began championing at the beginning of last year.  Not only is the cash for clunkers program a win for the environment--about 250,000 clunkers will come off the road, replaced by the same number of fuel efficient cars, the program has provided a shot in the arm to the beleaguered auto industry and also put $1 billion of stimulus out onto the street when we need it.  You might call it a win, win, win: a victory for the environment, auto manufacturing and the broader economy.

The program is so successful that Congress should dramatically extend it.  As a thought exercise imagine what would have happened had Congress enacted a $10 billion program at the beginning of the year that might have sold 2.5 million cars--about the number that the auto industry would have needed over the last six months to be profitable.  It might have put the auto companies into the black and possibly avoided the GM and Chrysler bankrtupcies and billions in taxpayer support. 

While it's too late to turn back the clock, it's not too late to extend the program--perhaps quadrupling it to $4 billion as Congressman Ed Markey has suggested, with the goal of replacing a million jalopies.  An extra $3 billion is worth it, in my view, to improve fuel efficiency, to protect the taxpayer's investments in GM and Chrysler and as quick stimulus now.

The Sainted James Hansen

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Its cap-and-trade system,reports Robert Shapiro,"has no provisions to prevent insider trading by utilities and energy companies or a financial meltdown from speculators trading frantically in the permits and their derivatives."

Clean Technology and Competitiveness 2.0

Clean technology clearly holds great promise for future economic growth.  However, as development of new clean technologies accelerate in the United States, it remains an open question whether US firms and workers will capture the economic activity or whether the bulk of the benefits will flow elsewhere.  The issue cropped up in the recent passage of the cash for clunkers law which will reward consumers for trading in clunkers for newer fuel efficient cars.  The law will benefit American consumers and carmakers but also benefit carmakers and overseas suppliers selling into the US market.  And, indeed, it shadows the entire issue of clean technology driven growth. While the transformation to a clean economy will pay important environmental and security dividends no matter what, how the economic promise of clean technology ultimately gets divided will vary by country. 

Call it Competitiveness 2.0.  It is the subject of a penetrating article in the current Harvard Business Review by two Harvard professors, Gary Pisano and Willy Shih entitled "Restoring American Competitiveness: Why America Can't Make a Kindle". The professors examine a wide range of technologies from computer equipment to software to clean technology and find America at a growing competitive disadvantage. Both the data they cite and the case studies they include should serve as a wakeup call to anyone thinking about clean technology and the future of the US economy.

While innovative ideas continue to flourish in the United States -- think Twitter, Ning and Facebook--the US has become a technology laggard among the OECD countries in critical measures. The US trade deficit is old news but the authors point out since 2002, the US has been running a deficit even in high tech goods and services. The main export of the US is capital.  And there are precious few bright spots in the technology firmament. 

In the case of the Amazon's Kindle reader, which the authors examine in detail, though engineers in California designed the product, there is simply no US capacity to make the components.  (If the US lacks the capacity to make a Kindle could it make a military computer in a pinch?)  In aircraft, Boeing continues to lead the world but it now relies on a network of global suppliers and has cut its American workforce.  Managing this complex supply chain led the company to delay delivery of its Dreamliner.  All but the highest end computers are now made abroad. And even complex software tasks, from writing software to using it for engineering, are moving overseas.

In clean technology, leadership in battery technology lies abroad. GM's Volt, scheduled for introduction next year, for example, will source batteries from South Korea. While a few companies such as Tesla are developing advanced auto technologies, the US lags Asian and European companies in hybrid and other technology.  With most growth in the world's auto sales likely to take place in China, India and the developing world, companies like Tata and Chery (originally a Chinese knockoff of Chevy) will have a homefield advantage. Chinese, Japanese and Korean companies dominate all PV production of solar cells except in thin films -- the most advanced and promising technology where US firms still lead the way. In smart grid technologies, US companies face roadblocks in the form of an excessively complex and highly regulated utility industry.  Installing new smart grid meters and retrofitting old buildings only gets you so far in terms of new jobs and new businesses.  All told, while the US has the potential, thanks to our still- unmatched system for financing innnovation, to develop the technologies of tomorrow we are, all too often, behind in the technologies of today.

What are the sources of our competitiveness problem? America continues to lag in primary and secondary education. Our universities may be the best in the world, but most of the spots in top PhD programs now go to more motivated students from overseas.  (Community colleges are a US strength that can be scaled as Rob Shapiro has argued and the President recognized today in calling for their expansion.)  The relentless search for low wages continues to send capital out of the US. American firms still can receive tax breaks for moving jobs overseas. Short term thinking, driven by the next quarterly results dominates corporate strategy.

On the macroeconomic level, the US continues to stress consumption over production. This bias, which derives from a strong dollar that keeps imports cheap as long as others lend us the money to buy them, encourages overseas instead of domestic production. A weaker dollar and shift toward a producer and investment-led economy would temporarily lower standards of living, but may be what is required to create the foundation for long term growth. Recently, former NEC head, Laura Tyson, proposed just such a shift in national priorities. While these are complex questions, a real debate over our priorities -- toward consumption--or production is in order. 

In the 1990s, the US made major strides in reversing its competititiveness deficit so that by decade's end it was leading the global economy. However, as Pisano and Shih make clear, those strides were temporary and the problem has returned.  The competitiveness issue, the authors show, is far more problematic today than  at any time in American history.  And if this issue is not satisfactorily addressed, the US will not see wages, standards of living or other metrics of welfare rise. As NDN has long argued and as the HBR authors note as well, stagnant wages combined with rising expectations led to the absurd borrowing that precipitated the latest financial crisis.

In short, if the US is to reap the economic rewards of a clean technology revolution, we need to seriously examine our competitiveness posture and take the steps needed to put us back on track to leading, not lagging the global economy.


The Stimulus So Far

New York City--This past weekend, Vice President Biden made news when he said that the economy was probably in worse shape at the beginning of the year than anyone thought.  Although he told George Stephanopoulos that it is premature to speak of a second stimulus, the implication of his remarks is that more economic aid may be needed.  Indeed, Democratic-leaning economists such as Paul Krugman and Laura Tyson have floated the idea of a second stimulus.  Meanwhile on the other side of the aisle, Republicans are already campaigning against a second stimulus.  What is driving the talk of a second stimulus is the poor jobs number last month that suggested the green shoots are turning brown.  This, therefore, may be an appropriate moment to look at what has happened to the first stimulus.  Is it working?  If not, is another one needed?  Is anything impeding the flow of funds.  Alternatively, should policymakers be looking elsewhere for more economic fuel.

During the initial debate over the stimulus, I argued on behalf of a board--an idea first suggested by Dick Ravitch, former head of the New York MTA--to accelerate infrastructure spending.  We did get a board but its focus is to track the stimulus not carry it out and a website, that President Obama said would provide unprecedented transparency regarding the stimulus.  Here is my take on the stimulus so far.

First, the website and accounting surrounding the recovery package really does provide unprecedented transparency for a large government initiative, even allowing readers to comment on and discuss recovery projects.  The good news is this allows us to debate the stimulus on the basis of thorough data.  The bad news, however, is that six months into the Administration, the data show that only about $65 billion worth of projects have been started, or about 8% of the total two year budget.  A far smaller amount of money has probably been actually dispensed.  As I anticipated, the strategy of moving the money through the normal bureaucratic channels as opposed to an emergency board has slowed its disbursement and therefore moderated its stimulative effect.  On the other hand, using existing channels provides a degree of oversight.  In the inevitable tradeoff between speed and oversight, implementation of the the recovery package has erred on the side of oversight.

In many ways the most interesting portion of the stimulus--the part I first proposed last year--was that directed to clean energy.  The success of these funds in stimulating clean energy innovation is important to America's future, but for the most part, it is too early to measure their effect.  DOE recently announced procedures for giving out the approximately $4 billion in smart grid funds.  However, companies have been hampered in applying pending agreement on smart grid standards.  The Administration is doing everything right in this respect, spearheading a drive to accelerate the development of open standards.  However, this money, therefore, has yet to be spent. 

As another indicator of the development of renewable energy, the price of photovoltaic panels has dropped this year.  The rate of decline about 1% per month, however, cannot be attributed with certainty to any one factor and probably is more related to Spanish policy than what we have done in the United States.

Around the country, work is beginning on numerous infrastructure projects.  However, the normal delay in government contracting--even for "shovel ready" projects means that the bulk of stimulus funds remain to be spent.  In contrast, as the New York Times reports today, the French have been much more successful in rapidly deploying stimulus funds.  However, they are able to do this, in part, due to their more centralized governmental structure.

In its first months in power, the Administration framed its policy response to the economic crisis as consisting of three key initiatives: first, pass a recovery package to stimulate demand, second stabilize financial markets to leverage financial activity around that demand and finally, address the mortgage crisis.  This framing was in my view correct.

So how are we doing on each?  The first policy response, the recovery package to spur demand and create a multiplier effect is underway but money is entering the economy slowly so that we won't really feel it until the end of the year.  There is a silver lining to this timing.  It will hit at about the time that some are afraid we may be approaching a double dip.  However, the slow pace will keep us on tenterhooks well into the fall.  The rescue package for the banks has been reworked a number of times, but the fact that the large banks have been making profits and that some have repaid their loans from the TARP indicates progress has been made on this front--most due to the effect of reversing the mark-to-market rules that were forcing massive market-roiling markdowns of illiquid securities--and the high tailwinds for the industry provided by low cost money from the Fed.  Finally, the mortgage industry remains largely as it was in February with the combination of initiatives suggested by an interagency taskforce yet to really take effect.  People are still losing their homes to foreclosure.

So does this mean we need a second stimulus?  On the contrary, it means that as of now the stimulus funds have yet to really hit the economy and talk of a second stimulus is, as the Vice President stated, premature.  What would be more useful is to try to accelerate the spending of the funds already allocated.  Much progress has been made on banking.  More should be done to reduce the cost of mortgages and keep people in their homes.

While retrofitting buildings is leading to some new green jobs, clean energy which I believe must be an important driver of future growth has yet to impact the economy in a major way.  To fulfill the President's goals, it is time to think seriously about roadblocks to the development and uptake of new technologies in the energy sector as well as the deployment of renewable energy.  The American Clean Energy and Security Act recently passed by the House and now slated for consideration in the Senate provides some incentives to modernize our electricity grid.  Key to the process is opening up the close-knit industry to innovation.  One of the subjects we are researching most aggressively at NDN is how to remove roadblocks in the energy industry that block innovation, open markets to new players and technologies and unlock the full economic potential of the energy network. 

In short, as I argued last year, how recovery money is spent and how quickly it is spent--not whether we do a "second" stimulus--will ultimately determine the speed of recovery.

DOE Turns on the Money

Last week the Department of Energy released part of the $25 billion in loans provided for through the Advanced Technology Vehicles Manufacturing Loan Program, included in Section 136 of the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007. The delay in releasing these funds had been one of the longest running scandals in clean tech policy. Upon taking office, the Obama Administration vowed to expedite their release and Secretary Steven Chu had made finalizing rules needed to administer the program a key priority. In the first installment of the loans, Tesla, the VC-backed California maker of an all-electric sports car, founded by Ebay veterans, will receive $465 million to make its compact, all-electric Model S sedan. Ford will receive $5.9 billion to retool 11 factories across five states to improve the overall fuel efficiency of its fleet.  Finally, Nissan will receive $1.6 billion to retool a factory in Smyrna, Tennessee, to make an electric vehicle that is being developed and initially manufactured in Japan. The remainder of the money will be released next year.

DOE's announcement comes on the heels of the release of its formal $3.9 billion smart grid funding solicitation last week. The Funding Opportunity Announcement spells out the conditions and terms for those seeking funding for smart grid investments under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the offical title of the stimulus bill signed into law earlier this year. These two developments, coming one after the other, are evidence that the DOE is moving rapidly on the President's goal not only of getting money out into the economy to create jobs and drive demand, but also of making investments critical to a clean energy future.

In the case of the auto loans, they could not be more timely. Autos are a capital intensive business and with credit markets still impaired, it would have been very expensive or impossible for Tesla, for example, to borrow this money on its own. However, that does not mean that the loan is not good business for the government and Tesla. CEO Elon Musk indicated he thinks that Tesla may be able to repay the loan ahead of schedule. Tesla, despite some speed bumps in its early phase, is now profitable on a unit basis, meaning the approximately $120,000 price of its sleek sports car -- which has a long waiting list -- exceeds the cost of components.  Having also recently sold a stake to Daimler Benz, the company is now reasonably well capitalized. Recently, investor Steve Wesley indicated that Tesla's sales are on track to pass $100 million, a common bar for conducting an IPO. If Tesla continues on its current track, it may be the first home run of the clean transportation industry. In any case, the DOE funding puts it on track to move from the sports car niche to the mainstream where it hopes to leverage the glamour associated with the roadster. While Ford and Nissan have greater access to the capital markets, these loans -- provided for in the 2007 energy legislation in exchange for a commitment to higher fuel efficiency -- will help achieve that goal.

In the case of the smart grid, the major barrier to moving forward has been undeveloped standards.  Normally, standards evolve slowly as industry players forge alliances and choose standards that already enjoy market adoption. In this case, the desire to stimulate the economy has accelerated this process. Secretary Chu and Commerce Secretary Gary Locke are overseeing an effort led by NIST to fast track standards for the grid to facilitate adoption. The disbursements made by DOE will indeed help establish standards insofar as the money spent will validate standards and increase adoption.

It is important that standards be as open and uniform as possible to create the broadest and fairest playing field for innovators to enter the smart grid technology market.  Because a smart grid is necessary to get clean energy online and also to drive the creation of new energy products and services, this is an area I believe is absolutely critical to determining whether clean technology can live up to its promise. 

While it remains to be seen how the smart grid will develop, these two announcements from DOE show that the Administration is on the case. These developments should be encouraging to anyone concerned about America's clean energy future.

House Passes Climate Change Legislation

The passage yesterday by the House of legislation to regulate greenhouse gases, impose a renewable electricity standard and carry out a host of other energy reforms represents the first time that either legislative body in the United States has passed climate legislation.  If the Senate now goes on to pass this historic legislation as well, it will demonstrate that the US is serious about saving our climate.  It is hard to underestimate the importance of this bill--that for all the changes made to gain passage--would be one of the most important environmental bills ever passed comparable to the clean water act and other landmark legislation.

Conventional wisdom holds that the bill faces an uphill battle in the Senate.  However, when dealing with historic matters,  the Senate has at key points in history, proven itself unusually far sighted and stepped beyond the calculus of ordinary vote counts as the House did yesterday.   As the summer progresses we shall see.  But certainly, yesterday's action by the House was a major win for the environmental movement and fulfilled the leadership's goal of passsing a bill before July 4th.  This, in and of itself, is a significant accomplishment.  We are that much closer to putting a price on carbon and changing the rules to transform the economy and move America toward a clean, low carbon future.


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