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New energy for green tech?

Depending on what happens in Congress in the days ahead, green technology might finally shake its reputation as a righteous cause for the well-off and environmental die-hards.

Interest in the field has been rising during the past several years, as evidenced by the ubiquitous use of the term "green" as a code name for all manner of scientific and technological advances designed to save energy and otherwise help preserve or protect the environment. Options include technology for monitoring and managing energy consumption by appliances and buildings, a modernized energy grid and renewable energy sources.

But these advances often come with a price tag that often limits their market potential. Sure, organizations or individuals might be enticed by products that could save money by reducing energy consumption, but only if they can afford the upfront costs.

President Barack Obama's stimulus package, however, could change all that, by some accounts. By pumping tens of billions of dollars into the energy sector, the federal government could change the economics, making technology affordable to a broader market. (See story, Page 10)

Obama's initiative is not without historical precedent, particularly during severe economic downturns.

"In fact, at various times in American history, moments like this one have been used for big programs, from integrating the armed forces to creating Social Security and, later, Medicare," writes New York Times reporter David Sanger. "So it is little wonder that everyone with a big, stalled, transformative project — green energy programs, broadband networks that reach into rural America, health insurance for the newly unemployed or uninsured — is citing the precedent of Franklin D. Roosevelt, and declaring that a new New Deal is overdue."

As with the original New Deal, the government would do its part under Obama's plan, spending money to update federal buildings and replace its car fleet with hybrid vehicles.

Proponents of green technology are energized by data from the Center for American Progress showing that Obama's plan could provide a big push to energy-related research and create 2 million new jobs in two years, according to the "Cosmic Log" at MSNBC.com.

But others are more skeptical. In an article entitled "50 De-Stimulating Facts," Stephen Spruiell and Kevin Williamson of the National Review report that some experts, such as Brian Riedl, a budget analyst at the Heritage Foundation, foresee billions of dollars of "renewable waste."

Green energy "is not a new idea,” Riedl points out. The government has poured billions into loan guarantees and subsidies and has even mandated the use of ethanol in gasoline, to no avail. “It is the triumph of hope over experience to think that the next $20 billion will magically transform the economy," he said.

Some environmentalists are skeptical as well. The Eco Geek Web site, among others, points out that the House bill would spend only $11 billion to modernize the nation's energy grid, “which is dramatically shy of the $400 billion Al Gore thinks should be set aside.”

More disappointment could be on the way. As of Feb. 6, a group of lawmakers were looking for ways to cut more than $100 billion from the stimulus package. Potential targets include billions of dollars in energy-efficiency incentives, according to the Washington Post.

Still, others remain hopeful, including our Canadian neighbors. CBC News reported last month that four former prime ministers, working with a coalition of special interest groups, were calling on the federal government to include a green component in Canada's proposed stimulus package.

The group, called PowerUP, “released a proposal calling for the budget to include an investment of more than $41 billion over five years to ‘green the economy,’ ” according to CBC news.

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