By VAUHINI VARA
While Solyndra LLC's flameout has fueled criticism of federal initiatives to encourage alternative power sources, the solar-panel maker is hardly the only disappointment among U.S.-backed energy programs.
Jason Henry for The Wall Street JournalJim Criscione, shown at home near San Francisco, remains out of work after learning to install solar panels.
That's evident in California, which was awarded $4.6 billion by the Energy Department as part of the 2009 Recovery Act—far more than any other state—to fund programs in energy efficiency and other areas.
A program to install insulation and other energy-saving improvements in homes that received $185.8 million has been hobbled by delays, and a plan to remodel buildings to be more energy-efficient, which received $113 million, has struggled to persuade enough home and building owners to upgrade, according to California officials.
Meanwhile, $15 million went to train workers in skills such as solar-panel installation, but 62% of that program's alumni remain jobless, according to the state Employment Development Department. Solyndra, which declared bankruptcy in August and is now embroiled in a criminal investigation over whether it defrauded the federal government, got $535 million, nearly 12% of California's total under the energy program.
What all of these programs have in common is that they tried to scale up very quickly in the midst of regulatory uncertainty and a sluggish economic recovery that hurt demand for energy-efficient products, said Mark Muro, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. Such factors "definitely negatively affected" some of California's clean-energy programs, said Panama Bartholomy, a deputy director at the California Clean Energy Commission.
California's experience isn't unusual, and some states have fared worse. The Energy Department found in August and September that the building-weatherization programs it helped fund in Missouri and Tennessee had quality problems and other issues that it said "could pose health and safety risks to residents, hinder production, and increase program costs."
Jen Stutsman, a spokeswoman for the Energy Department, said the 2009 Recovery Act "helped to create tens of thousands of clean-energy jobs in California and across the country."
Other investments in California appear to be more successful. BrightSource Energy Inc., which received a $1.6 billion loan guarantee, says it remains on track to build a project expected to nearly double the amount of solar-thermal energy in the U.S. and create 1,400 jobs. An $18.8 million EnergySmart Jobs program, which trains people to install electricity-saving features in grocery stores while giving rebates to those stores for their investment, has resulted in 2,070 upgrades. Jerry McLaughlin, vice president of operations at Spencer's Fresh Markets, a small California grocery chain, said an energy monitor installed under the program in one store's freezers should save $500 to $900 a month.
The Energy Department handed out $35.2 billion from the Recovery Act for energy efficiency and other initiatives. At the time, clean energy was seen as a potentially powerful industry for job creation.
But the industry has yet to provide the boost many had hoped for. Nationwide, jobs related to energy efficiency rose to 2.7 million people last year, up 27% from 2003, compared with overall job growth of 33%, according to the Brookings Institution. The figures exclude jobs lost because of establishments closing.
In California, the weatherization program ran into challenges because of a federal government delay in issuing prevailing-wage rates for the workers involved and inexperience of those administering the program. In July, state auditor Elaine Howle wrote that the program "faces challenges" in weatherizing enough homes by a deadline next year.
Rachel Arrezola, a spokeswoman for California's Department of Community Services, said the program is on track to use all but $18 million to $22 million of the total $185.8 million in funds. As of Sept. 30, California had weatherized nearly 37,000 homes and expects to reach its target of 43,150 homes before the program ends.
Meanwhile, the program to remodel houses and commercial buildings to use energy more efficiently was hurt after the Federal Housing Finance Agency warned in 2010 of "significant safety and soundness concerns" over a financing method the program planned to use, said the California Energy Commission. While the program had hoped to upgrade 15,000 buildings, only 6,342 are finished or in progress.
The sluggishness of the overall economy and slow adoptions of energy upgrades also have hurt training program for clean-energy workers, which combined recovery funds with state money to train 4,719 people in skills such as building energy-efficient houses since January 2010. Of the 2,931 who exited the program as of mid-September, only 1,104 found work, according to the state Employment Development Department.
Among those who remain unemployed is Jim Criscione. The 61-year-old, who lives near San Francisco, worked in construction for decades before he was let go in late 2009. In January, he signed up for free classes to learn skills such as installing solar panels.
But after Mr. Criscione finished his classes and applied for work, he struck out repeatedly. With unemployment benefits set to expire, he wonders if his time was wasted. "I'm down to almost anything to make a living," he said.
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