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Obama launches a roof-top revolution

Ten per cent of the US stimulus package will go towards renewable energy - but firms selling solar panels have got an instant jolt.

Namasté Solar and other alternative energy companies are expected to benefit from Barack Obama's economic stimulus programme.
Namasté Solar and other alternative energy companies are expected to benefit from Barack Obama's economic stimulus programme.

DENVER // When Barack Obama came to the Denver Museum of Nature and Science last month to sign his economic stimulus package, he climbed up to the roof to inspect the photovoltaic panels that power the building. In doing so, he gave Namasté Solar, the Colorado firm that installed the panels, the kind of word of mouth advertising that a small start-up company dreams of.

"The stimulus package will have an immediate, positive impact on businesses like ours," said Blake Jones, chief executive officer of Namasté, when he introduced the US president. But he could have hardly imagined how immediate it would be in his case. Within hours, Namasté's website had crashed because almost one million people tried to access it, and the 55-person Boulder firm has since received thousands of e-mails and hundreds of calls from potential clients.

The Obama administration, with its plans to ensure that 10 per cent of the United States' energy comes from renewable sources in just three years, has provided a jolt of electricity to the country's solar, wind and biofuels industries. Even in these tough economic times, renewable energy is finally getting its day in the sun. The solar industry, for example, has doubled in size every two years for the past decade, said Steve Robbins, an engineer at the National Renewable Energy Lab in Golden, Colorado, 26km west of Denver. "It has been steadily ramping up."

In 2004 the entire global photovoltaic industry had a production capacity of 1,195 megawatts. This year, one US firm manufacturing solar panels will produce that capacity on its own. "Since 2004, the investment community has poured billions of dollars into development," said Ashutosh Misra, senior vice president of Ascent Solar in Littleton, Colorado, another Denver suburb, about 25km south. "All that investment is now beginning to bear fruit."

New products coming to market range from thin-film solar panels and fuels made from corn husks to wind turbines with blades the shape of scimitar blades and the size of jumbo-jet wings. Mr Obama brings to the table an extremely ambitious agenda of his own, including a pledge to eliminate oil imports from the Middle East and Venezuela within a decade and to slash this country's carbon dioxide emissions by more than 30 per cent by 2020.

About 10 per cent of his stimulus package, some $80 billion (Dh294bn), will be invested in "green" projects or put towards tax breaks for renewable energy, conservation and efficiency measures. "The important thing is that we can no longer afford our dependence on oil," said Mr Jones, himself a former employee of the energy firm Halliburton. "Like a sound investor, we need to have a balanced, diversified portfolio that has a mix of energy sources. We want solar, wind, hydroelectricity, even some oil and gas, but it should be in drastically smaller percentages."

Getting there will present the United States with tough challenges, however, in part because the US manufacturing base for solar, wind and biofuel products remains small. Today, for example, the majority of photovoltaic panels are manufactured in Europe, Brazil and China, even those produced by US-owned firms. Denmark has a lock on the wind turbine industry. Its largest firm, Vestas, is about to open a plant in Colorado.

Mr Jones said he discussed this problem with Mr Obama and the vice president, Joe Biden, when they were on the roof of the Denver science museum last month. "Countries like Germany, Japan and China invested in their renewable energy markets long before we did," Mr Jones said. "The early bird got the worm. Their domestic industries grew faster and developed earlier, and now they are exporting and their economies are benefiting."

There is some expectation the Obama administration will further subsidise renewable energy development, and may even raise the cost of using fossil fuels by implementing a programme similar to Europe's cap and trade policy. "Europe put a cap on CO2 emissions and this is a central reason why their renewable energy market is growing so fast," Mr Misra said. "If the US matches this policy, it will be a major engine of growth."

Some go so far as to suggest that Washington should impose taxes to compensate for other costs related to burning fossil fuels, ranging from national security expenses linked to oil imports, heavy water usage associated with coal and the public health ramifications caused by pollution. "There are numerous added costs to our society when we get our energy from fossil fuels," Mr Jones said. "But nobody talks about this stuff."

For some renewable energy gurus, it is less an issue of costs than about righting the imbalance between the energy-haves and the have-nots. "You can't embargo the sun or the wind," he said. "You don't have to worry about it running out, and it's not like some countries have it and some don't." gpeters@thenational.ae