Mitt Romney’s criticism of President Barack Obama for promoting green-energy subsidies may keep the former Massachusetts governor from boasting about his own contribution to his state’s expanding clean-energy industry.
As a Republican presidential candidate, Romney has chided Obama for doling out billions of dollars to companies such as failed Solyndra LLC, saying the president is in an “imaginary world” where renewable energy fuels the economy, not traditional sources such as oil, natural gas and coal.
As governor, Romney’s administration employed the same incentives used by Obama. He promoted a green-energy fund backed by the state as a “major economic springboard,” and oversaw an increase in support for renewable and energy-efficiency projects. Like Solyndra, some of the companies funded by the state have failed.
“Massachusetts is a living, breathing microcosm as to why clean energy makes sense,” Rob Pratt, who directed the state’s green-energy effort for three years under Romney, said in an interview. “This acceleration started under Romney.”
A 2011 report found more than 64,000 clean-energy jobs in Massachusetts, up from a few thousand at the beginning of Romney’s four-year term, Pratt said. Romney left office in 2007.
The American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy in Washington gave Massachusetts its top rating in 2011, and the Washington-based nonprofit Solar Foundation said last year Massachusetts ranked 10th in the U.S. for solar-energy jobs.
While much of the expansion occurred under Governor Deval Patrick, the Democrat who succeeded Romney, clean-energy advocates said efforts to promote wind, solar and building- efficiency programs through a renewable-energy trust gained steam during Romney’s administration.
“He’s decided to jump into the ‘drill, baby, drill’ camp,” said Larry Chretien, executive director for the Mass Energy Consumers Alliance, a Boston-based nonprofit group that advocates for affordable energy. On clean energy projects, Romney put the state in a “good position to build on,” Chretien said.
``Governor Romney has never advocated for the government playing the role of venture capitalist,'' Ryan Williams, a Romney campaign spokesman, said in an e-mailed statement. ``In Massachusetts, he asked independent private managers to invest the funds that the state had already committed to green- energy projects, and he vetoed a proposal for additional spending.''
Not all of Massachusetts’ bets paid off. Evergreen Solar Inc. (ESLRQ:US) filed for bankruptcy in August after getting more than $50 million in aid from the Deval administration.
Konarka Technologies Inc. in Lowell shut its doors June 1 after receiving at least $6.5 million in state aid. The company collapsed one day after Romney visited Solyndra’s Fremont, California, headquarters, saying the shuttered factory symbolized Obama’s failed efforts to revive the economy.
Solyndra had won a $535 million U.S. loan guarantee two years before it collapsed.
Shortly after taking state office in 2003, Romney sought to promote his own administration’s efforts to create jobs through alternative sources of power.
After a January 2003 visit to Konarka, a statement from the governor’s office said, “Romney Ties Job Growth to Cleaner Environment.”
He touted $24 million to support clean-energy companies in the state, including a $1.5 million loan to Konarka, and grants and loans to Ameresco Inc. (AMRC:US), which won state support for landfill-gas facility in Chicopee, about 90 miles west of Boston, and Nuvera Fuel Cells Inc.
The effort included $15 million for the Massachusetts Green Energy Fund LP, a venture-capital firm that helped finance 12 companies, three of which, including Konarka, are closed.
“It’s been pretty much like any other venture fund these days, we have some successes and we’ve had some losses,” said William Osborn, a founding partner at the fund, in an interview.
In some ways, Romney was following a course already set. The state legislature in 1997 created the renewable-energy trust fund as part of the effort to deregulate electricity generation.
A surcharge on consumer electricity bills generated more than $160 million for the fund by the time Romney took office in 2003. The money was targeted for clean-energy projects.
Pratt, who was hired six months before Romney became governor, said the trust’s spending picked up during his administration.
According to an April 13, 2007, state audit, the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative, which oversaw the fund, spent about $15.3 million on renewable-energy projects in fiscal 2005 and $21.4 million in fiscal 2006.
Nuvera, the fuel-cell company, received a $5.75 million loan in 2006 to help move from a research facility in Cambridge it had outgrown and into a factory in Billerica, about 22 miles northwest of Boston, said Gus Block, director of marketing.
The loan helped the company, whose products are used in fork-lift trucks and automobiles, remain in the state, Block said.
At the time, the company had 100 employees, and now it now has 140, he said. The loan was repaid in three years, he said.
The trust also supported green-school construction, aided low-income residents conserve energy, and helped finance large- scale renewable energy projects, according a document showing the program’s history.
The Department of Energy called the Massachusetts Green Energy Power Partnership the largest such initiative in the U.S. when it was created in 2003.
Pratt, who backs Obama’s re-election, reported to the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative’s 23-member board. As governor, Romney didn’t have an oversight role with the fund, his campaign said.
Pratt, now chief executive officer of GreenerU Inc. in Waltham, which helps colleges and universities reduce energy costs, said Romney administration officials on the board didn’t challenge his proposals.
Romney was criticized by environmental groups for taking $17 million from the renewable-energy trust and using it to cut the deficit and for not joining a regional cap-and-trade program designed to cut greenhouse-gas emissions.
He also was skeptical about the government as a venture capitalist, saying a different emerging-technology fund supported by a state lawmaker was “not a model I would subscribe to,” the Boston Globe reported in an April 25, 2003, article.
As a presidential candidate, Romney has criticized Obama’s support for clean-energy programs.
“In place of real energy, Obama has focused on an imaginary world where government-subsidized windmills and solar panels could power the economy,” Romney said in a March 5 editorial in the Columbus Dispatch in Ohio.
The candidate’s website says “’green’ technologies are typically far too expensive to compete in the marketplace.”
The government can support clean-energy development by investing in basic research, rather than picking individual companies to back, according to the campaign.
Obama, meanwhile, has challenged Romney’s economic record as governor, saying the state was 47th in job creation.
Pratt said Romney was distancing himself from his own green energy record to draw the contrast with Obama.
“The only reason why you would walk away from it is because there is a convenient political divide that could get created here,” Pratt said.
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