The renewable energy revolution President Obama wants to jump-start with stimulus money might be coming. But it's going to take a while.
While Congress and Obama moved quickly to pass the stimulus legislation, corporate planning for the future is more measured. Any increase in green energy must overcome business and regulatory obstacles.
And businesses dominating the renewable energy arena are based outside the United States. Those companies will need to add or expand U.S. manufacturing before incentives in the stimulus package result in jobs for American workers.
"How real are the green jobs? Of course they'll be some, but how real are they?" said David Garman, President George W. Bush's Energy Department undersecretary from 2004 to 2007 and before that assistant secretary for renewables and energy efficiency. "It's something that we're just going to have to learn by doing."
The stimulus package offers a bevy of benefits to power companies making green energy. There are tax incentives, loan guarantees and direct payments. Companies can choose between grants and a 30 percent tax credit for investments in manufacturing facilities. There are also tax credits based on the amount of energy generated for wind, geothermal energy, biomass and other types of renewable power.
Those create new financial security. But several barriers are likely to stall the process. There is a lack of clarity in stimulus provisions, companies said, particularly those dealing with "Buy American" requirements. Corporate leaders fear a lack of highly skilled workers, and industry experts say rules at the state and local levels can take years to overcome.
"There are a lot of institutional barriers that can't be addressed at the national level," Garman said. Building a power line can take 12 years, he said, when you include the decade sometimes needed to receive permits.
Building a geothermal plant takes an average of three to five years, said Karl Gawell, executive director of the Geothermal Energy Association, a trade group for 120 companies.
Manufacturing plants might increase production in a year, said Deborah Wince-Smith, president of the Council on Competitiveness, a group of chief executives, university presidents and labor leaders focused on corporate competitiveness.
Though a year might be short in political time, it is "not short when people are out of work in a global recession," Wince-Smith said.
The political climate around green energy has shifted, however, a factor companies say is crucial to investment and planning decisions. Spending money now seems less of a risk with the stimulus incentives and other moves that businesses believe the Obama administration will make in support of green power.
"For the first time in a long time there are some financial incentives to attract manufacturing in the U.S.," said Roger Efird, president of Suntech America, a subsidiary of the world's largest solar power company, which is based in China.
Suntech is among companies planning to expand partly because of stimulus incentives, Efird said. The company makes its solar panels in China and ships them to the United States at an added cost of $15 per panel. But it anticipates that within a year it will be manufacturing those solar panels in the United States.
"It really doesn't make any sense logically to build this stuff on one continent and ship it to another," Efird said.