MIDDLEBURY — U.S. Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., wants to harness the power of Vermont’s growing renewable energy industry to fuel more “green” initiatives at the national level.
Welch was in Addison County last week as part of an “energy tour,” surveying local businesses’ renewable energy initiatives and products. His stops included Nathaniel Electronics in Vergennes, which is working on new solar technology, and the Blue Spruce Farm in Bridport, home to one of the state’s largest and most successful manure-to-energy power systems.
Plans call for Welch to use feedback from those visits to shape future federal legislation aimed at making Vermont a national hub for development of green energy.
“I’m trying to focus attention on Vermont’s private-sector efforts to move into a new energy economy,” Welch said during an interview at the Addison Independent.
It is a priority the two-term Congressman has already tried to advance through several pieces of legislation, including:
• “The Home Star Energy Retrofit Act” (H.R. 5019). Passed in the U.S. House by a vote of 246-161, this legislation aims at helping 3 million families refit, renovate and insulate their homes, creating an estimated 170,000 jobs in the process.
Home Star is a two-year program designed to spur home energy retrofits by providing direct incentives to homeowners to install American-made, energy-saving products and conduct whole-home retrofits.
“It’s a public-private partnership, where if you are a homeowner and want to do energy efficiency in your home ... and you are willing to put up to $3,000 into it, you will get a matching grant from the government of up to $3,000,” Welch said. “Anyone hired to do the work would be local contractors, folks who are having a tough time with the slowdown in new construction, and the materials used would all be sold locally, whether it is a small contractor or Home Depot. And 90 percent of all energy efficiency supplies are of domestic manufacture.”
Welch placed the cost of the program at $6 billion over two years, which he said would be paid through unallocated federal stimulus money.
Welch said the legislation is now stalled in the U.S. Senate, but he added, “There is a lot of interest in the country in getting this done.”
• The “End Big Oil Subsidies Act” (H.R. 5644). The legislation seeks to redirect taxpayer subsidies to oil companies — which amount to $34 billion over the next 10 years — and using at least some of that money for tax credits for renewable energy and conservation projects that Welch believes would create hundreds of thousands of jobs in construction, manufacturing, installation, electrical and other industrial sectors.
“The top five oil companies in 2007 made $123 billion, so they are profitable and mature,” Welch said. “They paid $37 billion in dividends — which is good for shareholders. Yet over 10 years they are going to get over $34 billion in taxpayers subsidies.”
H.R. 5644 would remove a number of the tax credits, deductions, special depreciation rules, exclusions, and exemptions for various activities associated with exploring, drilling and refining activities, according to Welch.
• Extending the “Renewable Energy Expansion Act” grant program until January of 2013. That program — which extends cash grants to qualifying renewable energy projects — was scheduled to expire at the end of this year.
Welch explained that renewable energy subsidies continue to be needed to encourage investment in the industry and make sure products are affordable until the economies of scale bring down prices.
“Many Vermont companies are fighting in this new energy space. They are doing well, but it is critical to them that tax incentives remain in place so that the purchaser has the economic incentive to make the numbers work,” Welch said.
Renewable energy initiatives must compete with a lot of other issues on the Congressional docket this year, Welch noted. During his interview at the Independent, Welch also touched on:
• The growing federal deficit.
Welch said Democrats have to take a multi-track approach to addressing the deficit, including supporting one-time spending to increase jobs, eliminating tax breaks for affluent special interests, and cutting the federal budget — with a particular eye toward eliminating redundant defense and intelligence programs he said have multiplied since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
• The 2010 elections. Welch — who is running for re-election this November — believes Democrats will retain a majority in the U.S. House, but stressed economic conditions are such that voters are becoming anxious. He said Democrat candidates will need to stress a fix for the economy and job creation.
“This is a very volatile time, and many people are hanging on by their fingernails, worried about their jobs, seeing the value of their retirement plan and their home decrease; there is apprehension,” Welch said. “There is an erosion of confidence in institutions.”
• The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Welch said he is pleased to see the ongoing pullout of troops from Iraq.
“I want to urge aggressive action to bring the remaining troops home from Iraq,” said Welch.
Meanwhile, Welch urged a change in the manner in which the U.S is fighting the war in Afghanistan.
“I voted against funding for the war in Afghanistan, and the reason I did that is because we’re doing nation-building when we should be doing counter-terrorism,” Welch said. “The Karzai government is hopelessly corrupt, there is no tradition of centralized government in Afghanistan.”
He argues terrorist elements have largely been driven from Afghanistan, and it should be the new U.S. priority to battle those elements where they have laid down new roots.
“We should have a dispersed response, not a nation-building response,” Welch said.
Reporter John Flowers is at email@example.com.