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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ARPA-E is funding the new pioneers — mad scientists and engineers with ideas for wind turbines based on jet engines, bacteria to convert carbon dioxide into gasoline, and tiny molten-metal batteries to provide cheap high-voltage storage. That last idea is the brainchild of MIT's Donald Sadoway, who already has a prototype fuel cell the size of a shot glass. The stimulus will help him create a kind of reverse aluminum smelter to make prototypes the size of a hockey puck and a pizza box. The ultimate goal is a commercial scale battery the size of a tractor trailer that could power an entire neighborhood. "We need radical breakthroughs, so we need radical experiments," Sadoway says. "These projects send chills down the spine of the carbon world. If a few of them work, [Venezuela's Hugo] Chávez and [Iran's Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad are out of power."

Then again, the easiest way to blow up the energy world would be to stop wasting so much. That's the final link in the chain, a full-throttle push to make energy efficiency a national norm. The Recovery Act is weatherizing 250,000 homes this year. It gave homeowners rebates for energy-efficient appliances, much as the Cash for Clunkers program subsidized fuel-efficient cars. It's retrofitting juice-sucking server farms, factories and power plants; financing research into superefficient lighting, windows and machinery; and funneling billions into state and local efficiency efforts.

It will also retrofit 3 in 4 federal buildings. The U.S. government is the nation's largest energy consumer, so this will save big money while boosting demand for geothermal heat pumps, LED lighting and other energy-saving products. "We're so huge, we make markets," says Bob Peck, the General Services Administration's public-buildings commissioner. GSA's 93-year-old headquarters, now featuring clunky window air conditioners and wires duct-taped to ceilings, will get energy optimized heating, cooling and lighting systems, glass facades with solar membranes and a green roof; the makeover should cut its energy use 55%. It might even beta-test stimulus-funded windows that harvest sunlight. "We'll be the proving ground for innovation in the building industry," Peck says. "It all starts with renovating the government."

The New Venture Capitalists
The stimulus really is starting to change Washington — and not just the buildings. Every contract and lobbying contact is posted at Recovery.gov, with quarterly data detailing where the money went. A Recovery Board was created to scrutinize every dollar, with help from every major agency's independent watchdog. And Biden has promised state and local officials answers to all stimulus questions within 24 hours. It's a test-drive for a new approach to government: more transparent, more focused on results than compliance, not just bigger but better. Biden himself always saw the Recovery Act as a test — not only of the new Administration but of federal spending itself. He knew high-profile screwups could be fatal, stoking antigovernment anger about bureaucrats and two-car funerals. So he spends hours checking in, buttering up and banging heads to keep the stimulus on track, harassing Cabinet secretaries, governors and mayors about unspent broadband funds, weatherization delays and fishy projects. He has blocked some 260 skate parks, picnic tables and highway beautifications that flunked his what-would-your-mom-think test. "Imagine they could have proved we wasted a billion dollars," Biden says. "Gone, man. Gone!"

So far, despite furor over cash it supposedly funneled to contraception (deleted from the bill) and phantom congressional districts (simply typos), the earmark-free Recovery Act has produced surprisingly few scandals. Prosecutors are investigating a few fraud allegations, and critics have found some goofy expenditures, like $51,500 for water-safety-mascot costumes or a $50,000 arts grant to a kinky-film house. But those are minor warts, given that unprecedented scrutiny. Biden knows it's early — "I ain't saying mission accomplished!" — but he calls waste and fraud "the dogs that haven't barked."

The Recovery Act's deeper reform has been its focus on intense competition for grants instead of everybody-wins formulas, forcing public officials to consider not only whether applicants have submitted the required traffic studies and small-business hiring plans but also whether their projects make sense. Already staffed by top technologists from MIT, Duke and Intel, ARPA-E recruited 4,500 outside experts to winnow 3,700 applications down to 37 first-round grants. "We've taken the best and brightest from the tech world and created a venture fund — except we're looking for returns for the country," Majumdar says. These change agents didn't uproot their lives to fill out forms in triplicate and shovel money by formula. They want to reinvent the economy, not just stimulate it. Sadoway, the MIT battery scientist, is tired of reporting how many jobs he's created in his lab: "If this works, I'll create a million jobs!"

Obama has spent most of his first term trying to clean up messes — in the Gulf of Mexico, Iraq and Afghanistan, on Wall Street and Main Street — but the details in the stimulus plan are his real down payment on change. The question is which changes will last. Will electric cars disappear after the subsidies disappear? Will advanced battery factories migrate back to China? Will bullet trains ever get built? The President wants to extend transformative programs like ARPA-E. But would they be substitutes for the status quo or just additions to tack onto the deficit? And would they survive a Republican Congress?

Polls suggest the actual contents of the Recovery Act are popular. But the idea of the stimulus itself remains toxic — and probably will as long as the recovery remains tepid. "Today, it's judged by jobs," Rogers says of the act. "But in 10 years, it'll be judged by whether it transformed our economy."

The Recovery Act's Four Investment Goals
1. Lower solar power's cost 50% by 2015, to put it on par with the retail cost of power from the existing grid

2. Cut the cost of batteries for electric vehicles 50% by 2013 and eventually reduce the sticker price of an electric car to match that of its gasoline-powered counterpart

3. Double the U.S.'s renewable-energy-generation capacity (wind, solar and geothermal) as well as its renewable-manufacturing capacity, by 2012

4. Lower the cost of sequencing an individual human genome to $1,000, enabling scientists to map 50 genomes for the same price as mapping just one today

By the Numbers
3,000

Number of homes supplied by a stimulus-supported photovoltaic power plant in Arcadia, Fla.

$20 BILLION
Amount Washington is investing in health-information technology like electronic health records

$4 BILLION
Amount being spent to make the power supply more reliable and efficient

18 MILLION
Number of new smart meters, which help control energy costs, that will be in use by 2013

30
Number of electric-vehicle-battery factories that will be online by 2012, vs. two in 2009

Source: The Recovery Act: Transforming the American Economy Through Innovation (August 2010)

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