The Green Side of $700 Billion

The bailout bill may not be as bad as it seems. Granted, I’m given to optimism when things look especially bleak, but when a friend recently expressed outrage at the millions of dollars in earmarks attached to the bailout bill, I exulted in pointing out that over $100 billion was slated for renewable energy projects. Can this be the Bush administration of yore?

Green perks in the bailout bill (for the actual text of the bill, click here):

First, there’s an extension of the renewable energy tax credit and new exemptions for biodiesel through the end of 2009 for wind farms and through 2011 for biomass, geothermal, landfill gas, garbage combustion, and hydropower—which is redefined to include power derived from the oceans’ tidal fluctuation and thermal variation. Tax credits extend through 2016 for homes that use their own wind, geothermal, or solar power. There are investment tax credits for companies that spend extra money to update their offices’ efficiency and incentives for ethanol plants to invest in cellulosic biomass. (For more on cellulosic ethanol, see Tom Yulsman’s feature in last year’s Sept./Oct. issue.)

Was renewable energy included because politicians have finally recognized that greening our economy could be one way out of this financial crisis—a long, slow way, surely, but at least a more sustainable one? I have no illusions (or delusions) that switching over to plug-in hybrids and backyard wind turbines will “save” the U.S. economy from whatever happens in the next two years. But creating tax incentives for renewable energy in a cash-strapped time may be exactly what Americans need to force us into a more realistic energy future. We may not save the polar bear, God forbid, but we may also realize that we have more to gain by investing in sustainable energy than just a warm, fuzzy feeling inside.

According to the Solar Energy Industries Association, one study showed that the bailout bill’s tax credits will create nearly half a million jobs and $325 billion in private investment—in the solar industry alone. Extend that to biofuels, wind, hydropower and geothermal, and you’ve got a whole new energy framework. (The American Wind Energy Association, for its part, announced the extension and creation of several new wind facilities just days after the bill passed.)

Lest I be accused of wearing rose-colored glasses, I’ll admit that the bailout bill’s concessions to renewable energy are only a very limited beginning to what I hope will be four years of changes to our environmental policy. And the bailout bill isn’t exclusively green: It also includes tax credits for extracting oil from tar sands and oil shales and even some random ones, like $192 million in rebates to the rum industry. Still, it’s a step in the right direction—and though porking up a financial rescue package may not be the most above-board way to do it, I’ll take what I can get.

*For more info on the specific environmental provisions in the bailout bill, check out this blog by Bill Chameides, dean of Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment.

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