By Michael A. Fletcher
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 28, 2009
ARCADIA, FLA. -- President Obama stepped up his promotion of the job-creating potential of the $787 billion economic stimulus package Tuesday, announcing $3.4 billion in grants to improve the nation's electrical grid.
The federal money will pay for "smart meters," updated transformers and other devices to make the transmission of power more efficient and reliable. Obama called the grants the largest investment in energy-grid modernization in U.S. history.
"There's something big happening in America in terms of creating a clean-energy economy," he said.
Obama's vision for changing energy habits and reducing U.S. dependence on fossil fuels, especially foreign oil, relies on establishing a national "smart grid": an array of switches, sensors and computer chips that will be installed at various stages in the energy-delivery process.
But no less important to the administration are the job-creation aspects of the investments. With the nation's unemployment rate at 9.8 percent and projected to rise, energy technology promises a bounty of new jobs.
The Commerce Department is scheduled to release estimates Thursday of economic growth for the third quarter of 2009, and for the first time in a year, forecasters say, the economy has expanded.
But job losses continue to plague the country, although not nearly as much as when Obama took office. That has left an opening for Republican critics, who have said that rising unemployment is evidence that the president's economic policies are not working.
"We've seen a $4 trillion budget -- $787 billion stimulus, $700 billion financial bailouts, health care, cap and trade [climate change legislation]. Everything seems to be more government, big government," said Rep. Connie Mack (R-Fla.).
While many economists say the stimulus money has helped stabilize the economy, most voters think otherwise, according to the latest Washington Post-ABC News poll. It found that 22 percent of Americans think the package has made the economy worse, while 35 percent say it has had no effect.
That sentiment is lending urgency to the administration's efforts to stem unemployment and talk up the virtues of its economic approach.
On Tuesday, Vice President Biden celebrated plans to reopen a General Motors plant in Wilmington, Del., to produce long-range plug-in electric hybrid vehicles.
The plant has been purchased by luxury automaker Fisker Automotive, which plans to hire 2,000 workers to manufacture the cars, and estimates are that 3,000 other jobs will be created to support the operation. The undertaking is being financed by a $529 million Energy Department loan.
Obama also talked about jobs as he touted the smart-grid expenditures in Florida, saying the technology is "expected to create tens of thousands of new jobs all across America."
He said grants have been awarded to 100 utilities (including four serving Northern Virginia, Maryland and the District) and other entities, which have promised to spend $4.7 billion in private money to improve energy distribution.
Pepco, with 750,000 residential and business customers in Maryland and the District, will receive $168 million, mostly to subsidize the installation of smart meters. The devices allow the utility to turn off the air conditioner in a customer's home, or turn on the dishwasher when energy is cheapest.
Baltimore Gas and Electric received $200 million, which it will match with $251 million in private money to install smart meters for its 1.1 million customers, the White House said.
The Northern Virginia Electric Cooperative, based in Manassas, will receive $5 million to deploy new technology that will identify power failures and other problems much more quickly. And Rappahannock Electric Cooperative, which serves Fredericksburg, received about $15.7 million for smart meters and other system upgrades.
Polling analyst Jennifer Agiesta and staff writers Jennifer Buske and Lisa Rein contributed to this report from Washington.