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State Clean Energy Funds Provide Economic Development Punch

Washington is again paralyzed and pulling back on clean energy economic development. Deficit politics and partisanship are firmly entrenched and the raft of federal financial supports made available through the 2009 stimulus law and elsewhere is starting to expire.

No wonder it’s hard to imagine—especially if you’re sitting in the nation’s capital—how the next phase of American clean energy industry growth will be financed or its next generation of technologies and firms supported.

And yet, one source of action lies hidden in plain sight. With federal clean energy activities largely on hold, a new paper we are releasing today as part of the Brookings-Rockefeller Project on State and Metropolitan Innovation argues that U.S. states hold out tremendous promise for the continued design and implementation of smart clean energy finance solutions and economic development.

Specifically, we contend that the nearly two dozen clean energy funds (CEFs) now running in a variety of mostly northern states stand as one of the most important clean energy forces at work in the nation and offer at least one partial response to the failure of Washington to deliver a sensible clean energy development approach.

To date, over 20 states have created a varied array of these public investment vehicles to invest in clean energy pursuits with revenues often derived from small public-benefit surcharges on electric utility bills. Over the last decade, state CEFs have invested over $2.7 billion in state dollars to support renewable energy markets, counting very conservatively.  Meanwhile, they have leveraged another $9.7 billion in additional federal and private sector investment, with the resulting $12 billion flowing to the deployment of over 72,000 projects in the United States ranging from solar installations on homes and businesses to wind turbines in communities to large wind farms, hydrokinetic projects in rivers, and biomass generation plants on farms. 

In so doing, the funds stand well positioned—along with state economic development and other officials—to build on a pragmatic success and take up the challenge left by the current federal abdication of a role on clean energy economic development.

Yet here is the rub: For all the good the funds have achieved, project-only financing—as needed as it is—will not be sufficient to drive the growth of large and innovative new companies or to create the broader economic development taxpayers demand from public investments.  Also needed will be a greater focus on the deeper-going economic development work that can help spawn whole new industries. 

All of which points to the new brand of fund activity that our paper celebrates and calls for more of. 

In recent years, increasingly ambitious efforts in a number of states have featured engagement on at least three major fronts somewhat different from the initial fund focus: (1) cleantech innovation support through research, development, and demonstration (RD&D) funding; (2) financial support for early-stage cleantech companies and emerging technologies, including working capital for companies; and (3) industry development support through business incubator programs, regional cluster promotion, manufacturing and export promotion, supply chain analysis and enhancement, and workforce training programs.

These new economic development efforts—on display in California, Massachusetts, New York, and elsewhere—show the next era of state clean energy fund leadership coming into focus. States are now poised to jumpstart a new, creative period of expanded clean energy economic development and industry creation, to complement and build upon individualistic project financing. 

Such work could not be more timely at this moment of federal gridlock and market uncertainty.

Along these lines, then, our paper advances several recommendations for moving states more aggressively into this new period of clean energy economic development. We suggest that:

  • States should reorient a significant portion (at least 10 percent of the total portfolio) of state CEF money to clean energy-related economic development
  • States, as they reorient portions of their CEFS to economic development, should better understand the market dynamics in their metropolitan regions.  They need to lead by making available quality data on the number of jobs in their regions, the fastest-growing companies, the critical industry clusters, gaps in the supply chain for those industries, their export potential, and a whole range of economic development and market indicators
  • States also should better link their clean energy funds with economic development entities, community development finance institutions (CDFIs), development finance organizations and other stakeholders who could be ideal partners to develop decentralized funding and effective economic development programs

In addition, we think that Washington needs to recognize the strength and utility of the CEFs and actively partner with them:

  • The federal government should consider redirecting a portion of federal funds (for instance, from federal technology support programs administered by the Department of Energy and other programs meant for federal-state cooperation) to provide joint funding of cluster development, export programs, workforce training, and other economic development programs  through matching dollars to state funds that now have active economic development programs, and to provide incentives to states without such programs to create them
  • The federal government should create joint technology partnerships with states to advance each state’s targeted clean energy technology industries, by matching federal deployment funding with state funding.
  • The states and the federal government, more generally, should look to “decentralize” financing decisions to local entities with street knowledge of their industries, relying on more “development finance” authorities that have financed traditional infrastructure and now could finance new clean energy projects and programs

In sum, our new paper proposes a much greater focus in U.S. clean energy finance on “bottom up,” decentralized clean initiatives that rely on the states to catalyze regional economic development in regions. Such an approach—which reflects the emergence of an emerging “pragmatic caucus” in U.S. economic life—is currently demanded by federal inaction. However, it might also be the smartest, most durable way to develop the clean energy industries of the future without the partisan rancor and obtuseness that has stymied federal energy policy. State clean energy funds—having funded thousands of individual projects—bring significant knowledge to bear as they focus now on building whole industries. For that reason, the funds’ transition from project development to industry creation should be nurtured and supported.