The symbolism was obvious: President Obama went to the rooftop ”the roof of the Denver Museum of Nature and Science in Colorado, with its solar panels for heat ”before he signed the $787 billion economic stimulus package into law Tuesday.

And even as analysts, environmentalists and green industries were still combing through the details of the compromise package, their strong consensus was that the stimulus package has a welcome and healthy green hue. Estimates are that about 10 percent of the total stimulus money will be going to green projects.

Environment America, a federation of environmental advocacy groups from various states, was quoted as saying that the bill as approved includes $32.8 billion for clean energy projects, $26.8 billion to improve energy efficiency and $18.95 billion for environmentally friendly transportation, for a total of about $78.61 billion. The preliminary tally from the Center for American Progress was that the package has at least $62.2 billion in direct green spending and another $20 billion in green tax incentives.

However the figures exactly shake out, it is clear that clean energy and green jobs should be getting a major boost over the next months and years. It is also clear that the U.S. government has just done a major about-face in its approach to energy and the environment.

Environmental leaders were almost as pleased with what was left out of the final package as they were by what was included. Many of them had objected to provisions in the Senate version of the package that provided billions for research and development of so-called clean coal plants and billions in loan guarantees for nuclear-power plants. Those provisions were dropped.

Brent Blackwelder, the president of Friends of the Earth, issued a statement calling the removal of those provisions a huge win, for our planet and for taxpayers who want stimulus funds to be invested wisely. His counterpart at the League of Conservation Voters, Gary Karpinski, praised the conference committee for keeping the best aspects of the House and Senate versions of the bill while removing money that would have been wasted on coal and other outdated energy sources. Kevin Kamps of Beyond Nuclear similarly praised a big victory for common sense and for the American taxpayer.

The overriding goals of the stimulus package are to get the economy moving and to save and create jobs. There was widespread optimism that the package’s emphasis on clean energy and green jobs will not only give the economy a quick boost but also will put the United States ”and perhaps even the world ”on the path toward a sustainable future and energy independence.

Former Vice President and Nobel Laureate Al Gore, who had publicly urged the Senate to pass the bill, joined with U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon on Tuesday to urge world leaders to work toward a revolution of green growth that would combat global warming while recharging economies. In an article they wrote for the Financial Times of London, the two leaders urged other governments to pursue such green stimulus elements as energy efficiency, renewable energy, mass transit, smart electricity grids and reforestation.

Here in the United States, Carl Pope, the executive director of the Sierra Club, in an op-ed column, wrote of this unprecedented opportunity to improve our economy and to make our nation a world leader in green investment and technology.

President Obama, Pope wrote, clearly understands that clean energy and green jobs are the future of our manufacturing and the foundation for a stronger America and more secure middle class.

Nor is it just environmental activists who are praising the green aspects of the stimulus package. Economists such as Robert Pollin of the University of Massachusetts, writing in The Nation, have said that investment in green technology creates many more jobs than investment in the existing fossil-fuels infrastructure. Green technology usually requires more workers, and more of the money stays in the U.S. economy.

These developments are a marked departure from policies of the last eight years, when the United States was often harshly criticized by many in the world community for being a hindrance rather than a leader in environmental efforts. It is also a new development for the U.S. government to sign on to the idea that the nation can do well economically by doing good when it comes to the environment.

What are some of the main green provisions in the bill, and what are their expected benefits?

  • Billions in tax breaks, loan guarantees and spending to promote alternative-energy research, renewable energy projects and construction of a smart electricity grid are expected to create new green jobs, and the bill also contains $500 million for training workers for those jobs. The package includes, for example, money to promote green jobs making wind turbines and solar panels. The smart grid will upgrade the country’s electricity-transmission grid so that it will be more efficient and can take advantage of new, cleaner sources of energy such as wind. Proponents say that the smart grid will be to electricity what the Internet is to information. Constructing it is expected to involve thousands of workers.
  • Energy efficiency provisions are expected to put many people to work quickly as well as to save money in lower fuel bills for the government and families, and to reduce carbon emissions by reducing fuel use. They include $4.5 billion for improvements to federal buildings; $6.3 billion for energy-efficiency grants to local governments; $5 billion to weatherize low-income homes; $300 billion for rebates for Energy Star appliances; and other money for energy efficiency projects for Native Americans and the Department of Defense. In Maryland alone, Malcolm Woolf, the state’s chief energy administrator, told National Public Radio that the money should greatly increase his budget and put thousands of people to work weatherizing homes.
  • Transportation projects also are expected to put people to work quickly and to save fuel and reduce emissions. The package includes $8.4 billion for public transit; $8 billion for building high-speed railways, and $1.3 billion for Amtrak. Across the country, many transportation agencies have said they have projects that could be started within 90 days. The bill also provides a tax credit for up to $7,500 for buying plug-in hybrid cars and money for advanced battery technology.

While praising the package, environmental leaders and economists also cautioned that the success will depend upon the implementation, and that vigilance will be needed to make sure that the money is spent wisely. The symbolism is right. Now, they will be watching to see that the substance lives up to it.

Linda Brinson retired in November as the editorial page editor of the Winston-Salem Journal. She is a member of First Baptist Church in Madison, N.C.

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