How the Stimulus Is Changing America

Voters hate it. Hardly anyone wants credit for it. But President Obama's $787 billion stimulus is quietly altering the way Americans work, move, innovate and plug in

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New juice Obama, right, tours a huge solar array in Nevada. Catching rays is easy; storing and shipping solar energy is harder.

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It wasn't that easy. Utilities control the grid, and new wires create thorny not-in-my-backyard zoning issues; there wasn't $100 billion worth of remotely shovel-ready grid projects. It's hard to transform on a timeline, and some congressional Democrats were less interested in transforming government than growing it. For instance, after securing $100 billion for traditional education programs, House Appropriations Committee chairman Dave Obey tried to stop any of it from going to Race to the Top, which is unpopular with teachers' unions.

Ultimately, even Obama's speed focused economists agreed that stimulus spending shouldn't dry up in 2010. And some Democrats were serious about investing wisely, not just spending more. So House Speaker Nancy Pelosi insisted on $17 billion for research. House Education and Labor Committee chairman George Miller fought to save Race to the Top. And while the grid didn't get a $100 billion reinvention, it did get $11 billion after decades of neglect, which could shape trillions of dollars in future utility investments.

It takes time to set up new programs, but now money is flowing to deliver high-speed Internet to rural areas, spread successful quit-smoking programs and design the first high-speed rail link from Tampa to Orlando. And deep in the Energy Department's basement — in a room dubbed the dungeon — a former McKinsey & Co. partner named Matt Rogers has created a government version of Silicon Valley's Sand Hill Road, blasting billions of dollars into clean-energy projects through a slew of oversubscribed grant programs. "The idea is to transform the entire energy sector," Rogers says. "What's exciting is the way it fits all together."

"They Won't All Succeed"
The green industrial revolution begins with gee-whiz companies like A123 Systems of Watertown, Mass. Founded in 2001 by MIT nanotechnology geeks who landed a $100,000 federal grant, A123 grew into a global player in the lithium-ion battery market, with 1,800 employees and five factories in China. It has won $249 million to build two plants in Michigan, where it will help supply the first generation of mass-market electric cars. At least four of A123's suppliers received stimulus money too. The Administration is also financing three of the world's first electric-car plants, including a $529 million loan to help Fisker Automotive reopen a shuttered General Motors factory in Delaware (Biden's home state) to build sedans powered by A123 batteries. Another A123 customer, Navistar, got cash to build electric trucks in Indiana. And since electric vehicles need juice, the stimulus will also boost the number of U.S. battery-charging stations by 3,200%.

"Without government, there's no way we would've done this in the U.S.," A123 chief technology officer Bart Riley told TIME. "But now you're going to see the industry reach critical mass here."

The Recovery Act's clean-energy push is designed not only to reduce our old economy dependence on fossil fuels that broil the planet, blacken the Gulf and strengthen foreign petro-thugs but also to avoid replacing it with a new economy that is just as dependent on foreign countries for technology and manufacturing. Last year, exactly two U.S. factories made advanced batteries for electric vehicles. The stimulus will create 30 new ones, expanding U.S. production capacity from 1% of the global market to 20%, supporting half a million plug-ins and hybrids. The idea is as old as land-grant colleges: to use tax dollars as an engine of innovation. It rejects free-market purism but also the old industrial-policy approach of dumping cash into a few favored firms. Instead, the Recovery Act floods the zone, targeting a variety of energy problems and providing seed money for firms with a variety of potential solutions. The winners must attract private capital to match public dollars — A123 held an IPO to raise the required cash — and after competing for grants, they still must compete in the marketplace. "They won't all succeed," Rogers says. "But some will, and they'll change the world."

The investments extend all along the food chain. A brave new world of electric cars powered by coal plants could be dirtier than the oil-soaked status quo, so the stimulus includes an unheard-of $3.4 billion for clean-coal projects aiming to sequester or reuse carbon. There are also lucrative loan guarantees for constructing the first American nuclear plants in three decades. And after the credit crunch froze financing for green energy, stimulus cash has fueled a comeback, putting the U.S. on track to exceed Obama's goal of doubling renewable power by 2012. The wind industry added a record 10,000 megawatts in 2009. The stimulus is also supporting the nation's largest photovoltaic solar plant, in Florida, and what will be the world's two largest solar thermal plants, in Arizona and California, plus thousands of solar installations on homes and buildings.

The stimulus is helping scores of manufacturers of wind turbines and solar products expand as well, but today's grid can only handle so much wind and solar. A key problem is connecting remote wind farms to population centers, so there are billions of dollars for new transmission lines. Then there is the need to find storage capacity for when it isn't windy or sunny outside. The current grid is like a phone system without voice mail, a just-in-time network where power is wasted if it doesn't reach a user the moment it's generated. That's why the Recovery Act is funding dozens of smart-grid approaches. For instance, A123 is providing truckloads of batteries for a grid-storage project in California and recycled electric-car batteries for a similar effort in Detroit. "If we can show the utilities this stuff works," says Riley, "it will take off on its own."

Today, grid-scale storage, solar energy and many other green technologies are too costly to compete without subsidies. That's why the stimulus launched the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E), a blue-sky fund inspired by the Pentagon's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the incubator for GPS and the M-16 rifle as well as the Internet. Located in an office building a block from the rest of the Energy Department, ARPA-E will finance energy research too risky for private funders, focusing on speculative technologies that might dramatically cut the cost of, say, carbon capture — or not. "We're taking chances, because that's how you put a man on the moon," says director Arun Majumdar, a materials scientist from the University of California, Berkeley. "Our idea is it's O.K. to fail. You think America's pioneers never failed?"

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