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tendril-iphone-appHere’s an iPhone app that really could help save the planet while saving stressed consumers’ money: Boulder, Colo.-based startup Tendril this week unveiled a mobile software program that lets people monitor and control their home’s energy use while on the go.

Say you’re sitting in the unemployment office listening to some bureaucrat drone on, so you pull out your iPhone to update your Facebook status and then check on whether that next unemployment check will cover the utility bill. When Tendril tells you that your electricity consumption is spiking and so will your estimated monthly bill, you remember you left the air conditioner set on Arctic. Flick your finger and shut that energy hog down.

That scenario won’t become common for awhile it as relies on a widespread rollout of smart utility meters that will bring the interactive smart grid and real-time electricity pricing into the home. That is happening, albeit very slowly (though the pace is expected to accelerate with billions in the stimulus package being poured into smart grid-related projects. The ability to remote-control your appliance, however, is some years away).

For instance, Tendril, is rolling out a home energy management system for Texas utility Reliant Energy (RRI) that allows customers to monitor and control their electricity use through a video display that sits in the living room. When Green Wombat visited Reliant’s smart house project in Houston last September, the utility’s tech guys showed me their own home-brewed iPhone app.

As anyone with an iPhone knows, Apple’s (AAPL) app store makes it ridiculously easy to turn the gadget into Dr. Who’s sonic screwdriver – a gizmo that does everything but put out the trash and feed your pet bunny. But earth2tech’s Katie Fehrenbacher questions how widespread Tendril’s app would be used given the difficulty in putting any third-party software program on a BlackBerry or other smartphone. But that’s changing by dint of Apple’s growing share of the smartphone market and the advent of the app-friendly Google (GOOG) phone.

Green Wombat is most intrigued by the potential of such apps as the Tendril Mobile Vantage to tap into people’s inherent competitiveness, keeping-up-with-Jones mentality and, in the Facebook era, compulsion to share, share, share. The data generated by smart meters and home energy management systems like Tendril’s will let consumers compare their energy use – and thus contribution to global warming – with their neighbors and friends.

In fact, Tendril is planning to add a carbon footprint feature to its mobile app. Funnel that data into a Facebook newsfeed and let the peer-to-peer pressure go to work to see who can claim Twittering rights to a low-impact lifestyle.

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photo: eSolar

NRG Energy, one of the United States’ most coal-dependent utilities, on Monday signed a deal with California startup eSolar to develop solar power plants.

The agreement calls for NRG  to invest $10 million in Pasadena-based eSolar for the right to use the startup’s technology to develop and operate three solar power projects in California and the Southwest that would generate 500 megawatts of greenhouse gas-free electricity.  NRG ranks as one of the nation’s dirtiest utilities,  spewing 70 million tons of carbon dioxide annually from its coal-fired power plants, according to a 2007 Fortune Magazine story.  But the Princeton, N.J.-based Fortune 500 company has sought to clean up its ways under CEO David Crane, pursuing carbon-capture technology and moving to build nuclear power plants.

Last year eSolar, founded by Idealab’s Bill Gross and backed by Google, won a 20-year contract to supply utility Southern California Edison (EIX) with 245 megawatts of green electricity annually. Last  April, eSolar scored $130 million in funding from Google.org, Google’s (GOOG) philanthropic arm, and other investors to develop solar thermal technology that Gross claims will produce electricity as cheaply as coal-fired power plants.

Like rivals Ausra and BrightSource Energy – which have deals with utility PG&E (PCG) – eSolar will use fields of mirrors to heat water to create steam that drives electricity-generating turbines. Gross says that eSolar’s software allows the company to individually control smaller sun-tracking mirrors – called heliostats – which can be cheaply manufactured and which are more efficient and take up less land than conventional mirrors. According to Gross, that means eSolar can build modular power plants near urban areas and transmission lines rather than out in the desert, lowering costs.

In October, eSolar’s then-CEO told Green Wombat that the company was more interested in being a solar technology provider than a power plant construction company.

The eSolar deal gives NRG (NRG), which operates coal-fired power plants in Texas and the Northeast, a foothold in the California renewable energy market. The first solar farm will go online in 2011 and NRG will have the right to develop 11 of eSolar’s 46-megawatt modular power plants. eSolar currently is building a five-megawatt demonstration power plant in Lancaster, Calif., that is expected to be completed this year.

“By coupling NRG’s construction capabilities and regional operating expertise with eSolar’s innovative … technology, we can advance NRG’s renewable energy portfolio while helping to accelerate development of these important projects on a commercial scale,” said NRG executive Michael Liebelson in a statement.

During a press conference Monday, Liebelson said NRG would be able to take advantage of the 30% investment tax credit for renewable energy projects and intends to apply for federal loan guarantees for such power plants that were included in the recently enacted stimulus package.

The deal, coming less than two weeks after BrightSource Energy signed a 1,300-megawatt power purchase agreement with Southern California Edison, shows that despite the financial crisis the market for renewable energy is showing renewed signs of life.

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google-powermeter

Google has become the utility of the digital age, something we click on as much as we flick on a light switch or turn on the water tap. Now the search giant is literally getting into the utility business with the development of smart grid software that gives consumers real-time information on their electricity consumption.

Called the PowerMeter, the prototype online dashboard is designed to download data from smart meters and display current electricity use and show how much power your refrigerator, big-screen television and other appliances are using at any point in time.

“We believe that by building a ‘smarter’ electricity grid, we can use the synergies of information and technology to give consumers better tools to track and reduce their energy use and, by doing so, save money and reduce greenhouse gas emissions,” wrote engineering executive Bill Coughran and Dan Reicher, Google.org’s director of climate change and energy initiatives, in a filing Monday with the California Public Utilities Commission. “Down the road, consumers should have access to additional information such as the source and mix of their power.”

The Google (GOOG) executives urged California regulators to adopt policies to give consumers direct access to their real-time electricity usage in an open-source format. “The goal is to foster a thriving ecosystem of partners where third-parties develop and provide products to help consumers decrease and manage their energy demand and save money,” Coughran and Reicher wrote. “For example, a third-party could offer a service that analyzes a household’s electricity usage data, identifies inefficient appliances or practices in the home, and offers tips on how to reduce energy or provides special discounts on efficient appliances or electronic equipment.”

Utilities across the country are rolling out so-called smart meters that allow the real-time monitoring of electricity use, letting them charge variable rates depending on demand. The idea promoted by Google and other smart grid proponents is that once people become aware of how much electricity their various appliances and gadgets consume – and how much it costs them – they’ll start, say, running the dishwasher at night when electricity demand and rates are lower. That will help utilities cut their costs and over the long run avoid building new carbon-spewing power plants to meet peak demand.

Google’s move comes as the Obama administration pushes to upgrade the nation’s aging analog electricity grid, including $11 billion in the stimulus package for smart grid-related initiatives.

Google says PowerMeter, now being tested among Google employees, will be a free, open source application. “Google tool is only one of many ways to provide consumers with this information,” the company stated in its utilities commission filing. “Our primary goal is for consumers to get this information, whether through our tool or another source.”

It remains to be seen how the Google initiative affects the fortunes of startups like Tendril, Greenbox and others developing software and services for utilities to let their customers monitor their electricity consumption.

Google says it’s currently working with utilities and device makers. Green Wombat is waiting to hear back from Google on which ones, but a good bet would be General Electric (GE), which struck a partnership last year with the search giant to develop smart grid technology. Also likely on the list is PG&E (PCG), which has been collaborating with Google on plug-in hybrid electric car and vehicle-to-grid research.

Then there’s IBM (IBM), which has become the leading player integrating smart grid technology for utilities and managing the data produced by a digital power grid. (Big Blue last week announced it is building the world’s first nationwide smart grid for the Mediterranean island nation of Malta.)

So will Google PowerMeter save consumers money while saving the planet? That’s the early word from Google employees – not exactly the most neutral of sources – who’ve been testing the smart grid app, according to testimonials Google posted online.

“By monitoring my energy use, I figured out that the bulk of my electricity was caused by my two 20-year-old fridges, my incandescent lights and my pool pump, which was set to be on all the time,” wrote “Russ, hardware engineer.” “By replacing the refrigerators with new energy-efficient models, the lights with CFLs and setting the pool pump to only run at specified intervals, I’ve saved $3,000 in the past year and I am on track to save even more this year!”

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The wind, solar and geothermal industries have wasted no time pressing the incoming Obama administration to implement an alternative energy agenda to spur investment and create jobs.

During a conference call Thursday, the leaders of the Solar Energy Industries Association, American Wind Energy Association and other trade groups lobbied for a plethora of legislation and policy initiatives. None of these proposals are new, but given Barack Obama’s campaign promises to promote alternative energy and the strengthened Democratic majority in Congress, the industry has the best chance in many years of seeing this wish list made real.

  • A five-year extension of the production tax credit for the wind industry (it currently has to be renewed every year) to remove uncertainty for investors.
  • A major infrastructure program to upgrade the transmission grid so wind, solar and geothermal energy can be transmitted from the remote areas where it is produced to major cities. Obama advisor Eric Schmidt, CEO of Google (GOOG), recently joined with General Electric (GE) chief Jeff Immelt to launch a joint initiative to develop such smart grid technology as well as push for policy changes in Washington to allow the widespread deployment of renewable energy by rebuilding the nation’s transmission system.
  • Impose a national “renewable portfolio standard” that would mandate that utilities obtain a minimum 10% of their electricity from green sources by 2012 and at least 25% by 2020. Two-thirds of the states currently impose variations of such requirements.
  • Mandate that the federal government – the nation’s single largest consumer of electricity – obtain more energy from renewable sources.
  • Enact a cap-and-trade carbon market.

“If the administration and Congress can quickly implement these policies, renewable energy growth will help turn around the economic decline while at the same time addressing some of our most pressing national security and environmental problems,” the green energy trade groups said in a joint statement.

No doubt those measures are crucial to spurring development of renewable energy and creating green collar jobs. But the major obstacle confronting the alt energy industry right now is the credit crunch that is choking off financing for big wind and solar projects and scaring away investors from more cutting-edge but potentially promising green technologies.

A focus by President Obama and Congress on restoring confidence in the financial system will most likely do the most for green investment as well as restore luster to battered renewable energy stocks like First Solar (FSLR), SunPower (SPWRA) and Suntech (STP).

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In another sign that the financial crisis is not slowing the solar industry, Suntech, the giant Chinese solar module maker, made a big move into the United States market on Thursday. The company announced a joint venure with green energy financier MMA Renewable Ventures to build solar power plants and said it would acquire California-based solar installer EI Solutions.

Founded in 2001, Suntech (STP) recently overtook its Japanese and German rivals to become the world’s largest solar cell producer. The company has focused on the lucrative European market and only opened a U.S. outpost, in San Francisco, last year.  The joint venture with MMA Renewable Ventures (MMA) – called Gemini Solar – will build photovoltaic power plants bigger than 10 megawatts.

Most solar panels are produced for commercial and residential rooftops, but in recent months utilities have been signing deals for massive megawatt photovoltaic power plants. Silicon Valley’s SunPower (SPWRA) is building a 250-megawatt PV power station for PG&E (PCG) while Bay Area startup OptiSolar inked a contract with the San Francisco-based utility for a 550-megawatt thin-film solar power plant. First Solar (FSLR), a Tempe, Ariz.-based thin-film company, has contracts with Southern California Edision (EIX) and Sempre to build smaller-scale solar power plants.

Suntech’s purchase of EI Solutions gives it entree into the growing market for commercial rooftop solar systems. EI has installed large solar arrays for Google, Disney, Sony and other corporations.

“Suntech views the long-term prospects for the U.S. solar market as excellent and growing,” said Suntech CEO  Zhengrong Shi in a statement.

Other overseas investors seem to share that sentiment, credit crunch or not.  On Wednesday, Canadian, Australian and British investors lead a $60.6 million round of funding for Silicon Valley solar power plant builder Ausra. “So far the equity market for renewable energy has not been affected by the financial crisis,” Ausra CEO Bob Fishman told Green Wombat.

The solar industry got more good news Wednesday night when the U.S. Senate passed a bailout bill that included extensions of crucial renewable energy investment and production tax credits that were set to expire at the end of the year.

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photo: eSolar

If Wall Street’s implosion can feel remote on the West Coast, where green tech startups largely rely on Silicon Valley venture capital, there may be no escaping the fallout from the credit crunch.

Still, even those renewable energy companies tapping East Coast cash have powered ahead amid the chaos on the Street. Take SolarReserve, a Santa Monica, Calif.-based solar power plant developer. A day after Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy last week, the stealth startup announced a $140 million round of funding from investors that included Citigroup (C) and Credit Suisse (CS).

Lehman does hold small stakes in wind turbine maker Clipper Windpower of Carpinteria, Calif., and Ormat Technologies, a Reno, Nev., geothermal developer. “Lehman’s exit from wind is not good news, but it’s not the end of the world,” says Ethan Zindler, head of North American research for New Energy Finance, a London-based research firm. And while Lehman holds stock lent to it from solar cell companies like SunPower (SPWR) and Evergreen Solar – potentially diluting their earnings per share if the stock is not returned – Lehman is not a big player in solar.

That’s not the case with Goldman Sachs (GS) and Morgan Stanley (MS). Both are major solar and wind investors and both were forced this week to reorganize themselves into bank holding companies to stave off shotgun marriages with other institutions. Spokespeople for Goldman and Morgan Stanley told Green Wombat that the firms’ transformation into more conventional commercial banks – at least a two-year process- will not change their green investing strategies.

But if there appears to be little immediate collateral damage from the financial crisis for green tech startups, there are longer-term consequences. Solar power plants, wind farms and other large-scale renewable energy projects require billions of dollars in bank financing.

“Credit is just going to get more expensive,” says Zindler. “We’ve already seen some pull-back for some big solar and wind deals. Bigger developers who have solid balance sheets will be OK but the smaller guys could be in trouble.”

Says Bill Gross, chairman of solar power plant developer eSolar: “I think if you’re going to get project financing, you’re just going to have to show higher returns to get people to take the money out of the mattress.”

But Gross, the founder of Pasadena, Calif.-based startup incubator Idealab, argues that given soaring electricity demand and fossil fuel prices, large-scale renewable energy projects will be an attractive investment, paricularly since utilities typically sign 20-year contracts for the power they produce. eSolar, which is backed by Google and other investors, has a long-term contract to supply Southern California Edison with 245 megawatts of green electricity. Gross says eSolar has a pipeline of other projects and interest in the company remains high, particularly overseas.

“If you can make projects that can compete with fossil fuels on a parity basis, those projects are going to be financed,” he says, “because they’re safe returns for 20 years and I think money is going to flow to them.”

Rob Lamkin, CEO of solar power plant startup Cool Earth, echoed that sentiment. “The credit crisis does give me pause,” says Lamkin, whose Livermore, Calif.-company has raised $21 million in venture funding and is developing “solar balloons” that use air pressure to concentrate sunlight on solar cells. “But the energy problem is so big that I don’t see problems raising project financing.”

The key for developers of utility-scale projects – particularly solar power plants – will be keeping their costs under control; not an easy thing when deploying new technologies amid a commodities boom.

Dita Bronicki, CEO of geothermal power plant developer Ormat Technologies (ORA), does not anticipate trouble obtaining project financing. “I think the cost of money is going to go up, but a company like Ormat with an operating fleet and operating cash flow will not be as affected,” Bronicki says. “Small companies will find that lenders will be more picky in what they will invest.”

Green entrepreneurs tend to be an optimistic bunch, so it’s not surprising they still think the future looks bright. But they had reason to be sunny this week – amid Wall Street’s meltdown, the U.S. Senate on Tuesday passed, at long last,  extensions of crucial renewable energy investment tax credits and other goodies to goose green tech, such as a tax credit worth up to $7,500 for buyers of plug-in electric cars. The Senate action now must be reconciled with similar legislation in the House of Representatives.

Solar projects, for instance, would qualify for a 30% investment tax credit through 2016.

“That is one thing that will help project finance,” says Gross. “So many people are sitting on the sidelines right now and if the investment tax credit passes that will help get these projects financed.”

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SAN FRANCISCO – Google and General Electric said Wednesday that they will collaborate on developing geothermal power as well as technology to enable plug-in vehicles to return electricity to the grid.

During Google’s (GOOG) annual Zeitgeist conference at its Silicon Valley headquarters, Google CEO Eric Schmidt and GE (GE) chief Jeff Immelt said the two giants also would team up to push for policy changes in Washington to develop smart electricity grids to allow the widespread deployment of renewable energy.

“There’s two fundamental things that have to be done, and which we’re working with Google on,” said Immelt before an audience that included former Vice President Al Gore. “One, there has to be more capacity. The second thing is there has to be a smart grid to allow it to operate more effectively. That’s primarily software. We make the hardware.”

Schmidt quizzed Immelt about the impact of the Wall Street meltdown on green energy. “Will the craziness of last week screw some of this stuff up?” asked Schmidt. “Are we going to get set back for years because of all the shenanigans in the financial industry?”

“People should be concerned but not panicked,” replied Immelt. “The federal government is doing the right thing.”

Gore was not so sanguine, noting that Congress has failed repeatedly to extend crucial investment tax credits for renewable energy. “While Congress is voting on oil drilling and leasing oil shale – which is a move that would be game over for the climate crisis – they’re preparing to filibuster over renewable energy tax credits,” he said.

Google and GE are among scores of Fortune 500 companies that have lobbied Congress to extend the investment tax credit and the production tax credit, which is particularly important to the wind industry. ”

“I’m a lifelong Republican and I believe in free markets but over time we worship false idols,” says Immelt. “Sometimes we think the free market is whatever the price of oil is today. In the end, clean energy is both a technology and a public policy.”

He noted that because the production tax credit allowed the wind industry to scale up, wind-generated electricity now costs about six-to-seven cents a kilowatt hour, down from 15 cents 15 years ago.

“We bought Enron’s wind business for a few million dollars and now it’s worth $7 to 8 billion,” Immelt said. “I’ve made some bad decisions but that wasn’t one of them.”

Google in August invested nearly $11 million in geothermal companies developing so-called enhanced geothermal systems technology to allow the earth’s heat to be tapped nearly anywhere and turned into electricity. On Wednesday, Google and GE said they will work on technology to transform geothermal into a large-scale source of green electricity.

In a statement, the two companies said they will also “explore enabling technologies including software, controls and services that help utilities enhance grid stability and integrate plug-in vehicles and renewable energy into the grid.”

Image: Google

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BERKELEY, Calif. – The Berkeley City Council Tuesday night gave final approval for the nation’s first municipal program to finance solar arrays for homes and businesses.

The city’s Sustainable Energy Financing District could accelerate the adoption of rooftop solar by overcoming one of the biggest obstacles to homegrown green energy: the $20,000 to $30,000 upfront costs and long payback time for a typical solar system.

Here’s how the program will work: Berkeley will seek bond financing up to $80 million for the solar program – enough to install solar arrays on 4,000 homes and pay for some energy efficiency improvements. For those who sign up, Berkeley will pay for the solar arrays and add a surcharge to the homeowners’ tax bill for 20 years. When the house is sold, the surcharge rolls over to the new owner.

According to city staff, a typical solar array will cost $28,077 – you won’t find many McMansions in this city by the bay) – and after state rebates, $22,569 will need to be financed at an estimated interest rate of 6.75%. Berkeley is counting on obtaining a favorable interest rate given that the debt will be secured by property tax revenue. (And to answer the inevitable question, the foreclosure rate in Berkeley is low and property values have been relatively stable. How the meltdown on Wall Street will affect the program is another matter.)

For a typical solar system, the homeowner will be assessed an extra $182 a month on her property tax bill. To put that in perspective, the property tax bill on a $800,000 house – your basic middle-class home here if it was bought within the past three years – runs about $900 a month.

Electric bills are relatively low in Berkeley due to the temperate climate – Green Wombat’s was $15 in August. The real benefit of the program may come if it is used for solar hot water systems and expanded to pay for energy efficiency measures, such as installing new windows and insulation in Berkeley’s housing stock, most of which dates from the early 20th century.

The remaining hurdle is for the city to secure financing at a favorable rate. Once that is obatined, the program. which has won the support of local utility giant PG&E (PCG), should also be boon for solar panel makers and installers like SunPower (SPWR), SunTech (STP), Akeena (AKNS) and Sungevity.

The solar program is designed to help Berkeley meet a voter-approved mandate to cut its greenhouse gas emissions 80 percent by 2050.

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Google on Tuesday took the drilling debate in a different direction – announcing that Google.org is investing nearly $11 million in technology to expand the nation’s geothermal reserves. That’s more than the U.S. government is spending on geothermal projects this year.

Traditional geothermal power plants, like those built by Calpine (CPN) in Northern California, sit atop reserves of naturally occurring steam or hot water that can be tapped to drive electricity-generating turbines. So-called Enhanced Geothermal Systems, or EGS,  hope to tap geothermal energy in any location by drilling deep underground to fracture “hot rocks” and then pump them with water to create steam that can be used in a power plant. The great potential, of course, would be to liberate the Midwest and South from their dependence on coal-fired power plants.

“While the U.S. debates drilling in the ocean for oil, we are focused on drilling for renewable energy – and lots of it – right beneath our feet,” Google.org said in a statement, citing a Massachusetts Institute of Technology study that estimates the accessible heat below the U.S. represents more than 2,500 times the nation’s annual energy consumption. (A Google.org video on geothermal is above.)

Google.org (GOOG), the search giant’s philanthropic arm,  will invest $6.25 million into AltaRock Energy, a Sausalito, startup, developing EGS technology. The investment is part of $26.25 million round of funding AltaRock revealed on Tuesday. Other investors include marquee green-tech venture capitalists Khosla Ventures and Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers.

Potter Drilling, a Redwood City, Calif., company developing hard-rock drilling technology to be used for geothermal, scored $4 million from Google.org. Other investors include MIT.

Google.org is granting the Southern Methodist University Geothermal Laboratory $489,521 to map North America’s geothermal reserves.

The geothermal funding is the latest investment in renewable energy by Google. It has invested in solar power plant companies BrightSource Energy and eSolar as well as in high-altitude wind company Makani and various ventures related to plug-in hybrid electric cars.

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With billions of dollars of solar and wind power projects and thousands of green-collar jobs hanging in the balance, the U.S. Senate on Wednesday again failed to extend a key investment tax credit for renewable energy.

Republicans blocked the legislation from coming to the floor, marking the eighth attempt to extend the 30 percent tax credit beyond it’s Jan. 1, 2009, expiration date. The extension is backed by all the state governors save Georgia, a coalition of Fortune 500 companies, Wall Street banks, renewable energy startups, and tech giants like Google (GOOG), Hewlett-Packard (HPQ) and Applied Materials (AMAT).

Utilities like PG&E (PCG) and Edison International (EIX) as well as financiers such as Morgan Stanley (MS) and GE Energy Financial Services (GE), are pushing for an eight-year extension of the investment tax credit to give Big Solar projects enough time to get off the ground and start to achieve economies of scale.

Senate Republicans opposed the legislation, contending it would raise taxes. A list of senators and their votes on the legislation can be found here.

Without the 30 percent tax credit, the viability of several large solar power plant projects remains in doubt. Spanish solar company Abengoa Solar has said it probably will pull out of plans to build a 280-megawatt power plant in Arizona if Congress doesn’t renew the tax credit. Green Wombat happened to have breakfast this morning with a PG&E executive who said that the large solar projects that California utilities are counting on to meet renewable energy mandates would have a hard time securing financing absent the investment tax credit.

First Solar (FSLR) CEO Michael Ahearn said on an earnings call Wednesday afternoon that if the investment tax credit is not extended the thin-film solar module maker would focus its efforts on the European market. “We don’t have massive volumes of solar planned for the U.S. in the short term,” said Ahearn.

Said Rhone Resch, president of the trade group Solar Energy Industries Association, in a statement: “Already companies are putting projects on hold and preparing to send thousands of jobs overseas – real jobs that would otherwise be filled by American workers.”

While Senators Barack Obama and John McCain have have expressed support for increasing the U.S.’s investment in green energy, neither presidential candidate showed up to vote Wednesday on the extension of the tax credit.

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