When it comes to investing in clean energy, the federal government is all over the case. Eleven government departments and agencies operate a total of 94 programs to encourage clean energy projects and research in private sector buildings, a recent Government Accountability Office report revealed.
Talk about government overlap: The Department of Energy runs six separate programs to research ways to make commercial and residential programs more energy-efficient, while the Defense Department operates its own program called the Environmental Security Technology Certification Program to research and develop military-related environmentally-friendly technologies. In all, 83 of these programs target energy conservation in some way, 60 focus on indoor air quality, and 51 encourage water conservation.
Clean energy is a top priority of the Obama administration, which late last year launched an initiative offering businesses $2 billion to enhance their energy efficiency, while spearheading green building projects as part of the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.
And while the president has stressed the importance of government reorganization and downsizing where possible, the administration has largely left dozens of “green” programs in place from previous administrations. The result is a "lasagna" of similar programs layered one on top of the other.
Obama’s fiscal 2013 budget calls for $6.7 billion in funding for clean energy programs across the federal government, a $760 million increase over 2012 spending levels.
“We’re not going to be able to drill our way out of high gas prices,” Obama said during an energy policy speech Wednesday in North Carolina. “ If we are going to control our energy future…we need to invest in the technology that will help us use less oil in our cars and our trucks, in our buildings, in our factories . . . As we start using less, that lowers the demand, prices come down. “
But this array of often overlapping energy-efficient building programs is inefficient and potentially waste itself, the GAO report found. [“How can you deliver services and achieve the overall goal of saving energy when every cook in the federal government is trying to get their hands in the energy-efficiency pot?”]
Federal agencies have increasingly raised their hands to lead energy-efficient building programs partly in an effort to boost agency resources, said Steve Ellis, Vice President for Taxpayers for Common Sense, a taxpayer watchdog group.
“If you suggest a program that’s part of a hot issue for the President, like energy-efficiency, you’re likely as an agency to get more favor and funding in the budget,” Ellis said. But that practice results in enormous overhead costs for separate program staffs, and paves the way for the type of overlap that undermines the whole effort, Ellis said. “How can you deliver services and achieve the overall goal of saving energy when every cook in the federal government is trying to get their hands in the energy-efficiency pot?” Ellis said.
Moreover, Republican lawmakers and presidential candidates have criticized the Obama administration’s clean energy programs as politically motivated cash infusions to companies like the now-bankrupt solar-panel firm Solyndra, at a time when the federal government can hardly afford it. The Energy Department provided Solyndra with a $535 million federal loan guarantee to help the company create jobs before it filed for bankruptcy last fall.
The Taxpayer Tab -- a Government Mystery
It’s unclear how much taxpayers spend on the 94 green building initiatives in the form of grants, loans, technical assistance, and tax incentives. That’s because many are combined with larger programs, and are not priced out individually by federal agencies. Equally unclear is the cost benefit of these programs, because two-thirds are not measured for their performance, GAO reported.
“Government-wide collaboration to identify performance information could, among other things, help inform efforts to evaluate the potential for inefficient or costly duplication and overlap across the more than 90 federal initiatives—implemented by 11 agencies—to foster green building,” the report stated.