Stimulus bunny yet to leave eggs in Colorado’s basket

By Jason Kosena
THE COLORADO STATESMAN

Colorado’s push to create a “New Energy Economy” will definitely benefit from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, but by how much is still unknown.

Despite the haste with which Congressional leaders passed the now infamous $900 billion stimulus package, the money coming to Colorado to benefit clean, new energy projects has yet to arrive.

In fact, although a few dollars have been designated, with Earth Day just around the corner there aren’t many confirmed projects on the list, and the waiting game has begun.

“We have an inherently difficult challenge with this money,” said Tom Plant, director of the Governor’s Energy Office, which directs much of the stimulus money, earlier this month.

“Number one, the goal is to create jobs — to get that money out there fast and to make it very accountable and transparent,” Plant continued. “But the key issue is that we are trying to make a substantive change in this entire industry, and we have to do it such a way that we are driving demand, building business and a workforce, but doing it in a way that — when that money goes away — it doesn’t fall apart.”

The state is still awaiting final details on the exact dollar amount and federal assistance it will receive in funds aimed at jumpstarting renewable energy, energy efficiency, weatherization and clean energy projects. What leaders do know is that Colorado will receive $50 million for the State Energy Fund, $80 million for low-income weatherization programs and some money in the form of energy efficiency and conservation block grants.

All the money will go toward helping people save money and lower energy costs and toward creating jobs in the new energy economy, Plant said. Construction loan guarantees for new energy companies in Colorado, including Abound Solar, formerly AVA Solar, in Longmont, among others, are expected to be included, but nothing has been confirmed.

In fact, of the expected funds, only a small fraction of the weatherization money has yet come to Colorado.

“We’re still waiting on the federal government, as of this week, to give us more details on the funding,” said Todd Hartman, director of communications for the GEO.

In addition to low-income weatherization money, the State Energy Fund and conservation block grants, Colorado also is ready to apply for competitive clean energy grants that will be provided through the stimulus package. But even that has been put on hold as the state awaits the release of the grant specifications and proposal list from the U.S. Department of Energy, which was supposed to arrive by April 1.

“From what we can best tell, it’s taking longer than some expected to get everything in order,” said Don Elliman, a member of the Colorado Office of Economic Development and International Trade during a luncheon event this week in Denver.

The biggest challenge, however, will be utilizing the stimulus money effectively.

Offering any industry buckets of one-time money is problematic in the long-term, Plant said, adding he believes Colorado is in good place to compete for many of the grants that eventually will be awarded.

Gov. Bill Ritter’s push for a “New Energy Economy” also will be helpful, Plant said.

“We have been doing this for the last couple of years without a good federal partner, but now we have a good federal partner, and I think we are more than ready to compete,” he said. “There is an awful lot of (research and development) happening here, and we have the best research corridor in renewable energy in the world. It’s one of the things that makes us attractive to new industry and is something that we have used as a calling card around the world.”

Others say the recent visit by President Barack Obama to Denver to sign the stimulus bill at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science was more than a symbolic gesture. It could be the sign of future prosperity for the state in terms of receiving some of the new energy funds from the legislation.

“The fact that the president chose Colorado to sign the stimulus bill was a direct reward for the efforts the state has made into developing the new energy economy,” remarked former Rep. Alice Madden to industry leaders earlier this month. Madden was recently appointed by Ritter to serve as the state’s quasi energy czar.

“We are really at the front of the pack, and we really believe and hope that we can get a lion’s share of these competitive grants,” Madden continued. “I am very excited about the academic power that we will be able to lasso and get out into the marketplace.”

Despite the relative lack of details about the clean energy funding from the stimulus package, some other areas of funding have been made public in Colorado. In addition to increased funding for some police and sheriff’s departments, $10 million to $25 million for cleaning up the Summitville Mine Superfund site was allocated this week. In addition, The Denver Business Journal reported the federal General Services Administration is proposing to allocate an estimated $332 million of its funding in Colorado for improvements to courthouses and other government buildings.

Jason@coloradostatesman.com