An energy conservation subsidy that was enacted during the Bush administration is sitting largely untouched, even though it could add thousands of new jobs to the struggling U.S. economy.
The Qualified Energy Conservation Bond program is supposed to help state and municipal governments develop clean energy projects. But of the $3.2 billion available, only $550 million—or just over 15 percent—has been spent since the program was created in 2008.
The problem, according to a coalition of clean energy advocates, is that the program’s guidelines are so vaguely written that it's almost impossible to figure out which projects qualify for the money. The coalition has sent memos and emails to two White House offices asking for clear definitions on how the funds for energy efficiency and green building projects can be spent. They've also raised the issue with officials in the U.S. Energy and Treasury departments. So far, however, they haven't gotten the help they say is needed to put the funding to use.
Now, the coalition, called #CleanEnergyJobs, is ratcheting up its efforts by appealing directly to President Obama to help demystify the energy program.
The group of more than a dozen nonprofits, research institutions and businesses filed a collective We the People petition on Thursday as part of a month-long campaign to put nearly $2.7 billion of Qualified Energy Conservation Bonds (QECBs) to use in energy projects nationwide.
The online petition platform, a two-month-old initiative from the White House, allows citizens to create or sign petitions that seek changes in federal policies. If the QECB petition gathers at least 25,000 digital signatures by Dec. 30, then the White House will be compelled to issue a public response.
The petition asks for clarifications in the language surrounding two components of the QECB program.
The law includes special provisions for "green community programs" but the coalition says it doesn’t explain what kinds of facilities or improvement projects that might include. The law also covers green building retrofits that reduce energy consumption by 20 percent, but it doesn’t explain how those reductions should be calculated.
"We're shining a spotlight on this pot of money that is a really clear opportunity to create jobs and to jumpstart and strengthen local economies with clean energy," said Colin Bishopp, deputy director of the Clean Economy Development Center, which is spearheading the effort. "Local governments across the country are interested in developing clean energy projects, but they need to know what they can do and how they can finance them. This is another great tool that could be available to them."
The Treasury Department, the White House's Council on Environmental Quality and the National Economic Council did not respond to requests for comment by deadline.
The Obama administration has lauded green construction projects as a key strategy for driving new job growth. Energy-efficient buildings are particularly appealing, because they also allow cash-strapped governments to reduce energy bills and scale back greenhouse gas emissions. In the United States, commercial and multifamily buildings account for 40 percent of the nation's energy use, at an annual cost of more than $400 billion in electricity bills and operational expenses, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.
The QECB program works like this: state and municipal governments looking to finance energy projects can sell bonds to private lenders, often banks, in exchange for cash to cover upfront costs. The bonds earn interest over time, adding to the amount the governments owe the banks.
But by using QECBs, local authorities can get a cash payment from the U.S. Treasury worth up to 70 percent of the interest owed. That reduces the amount they must spend and makes clean energy projects more affordable, said Elizabeth Bellis. Bellis directs the QECB program at the Energy Programs Consortium, which includes four primary organizations representing state energy officials. The consortium is also a member of the #CleanEnergyJobs project.
Congress first approved the QECB program in 2008 under the Energy Improvement and Extension Act. Legislators allotted each of the 50 states, plus the District of Columbia and five U.S. territories, a certain percentage of funding to cover the interest rates of up to $800 million in total bonds issued nationwide.
Governments initially used QECB funding to offer tax breaks to the private lenders who bought the bonds, giving the banks an incentive to lower interest rates. With the 2009 Recovery Act—which pumped the total bond cap up to $3.2 billion—the governments themselves could receive cash payments in lieu of offering tax breaks.