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Fact Check: Stimulus money gave 'green' industry second wind?

By Matt Smith, CNN
Press Secretary Robert Gibbs cited a 39 percent increase in the number of wind plants over the past year.
Press Secretary Robert Gibbs cited a 39 percent increase in the number of wind plants over the past year.
  • White House spokesman says stimulus increased new wind electricity generation
  • Report shows, however, the new growth hasn't necessarily translated into new jobs
  • Industry analyst: "Overall, we've had some gains and some losses"

(CNN) -- Just what we need out of Washington: More wind.

But seriously, folks -- the White House took time out Tuesday to plug what it called a success story ahead of President Obama's State of the Union address. Citing a new report by the American Wind Energy Association, Obama spokesman Robert Gibbs said the administration's much-criticized economic stimulus bill turned what had been a projected decline in new wind electricity generation in 2009 to a sharp increase.

Gibbs said the association predicted the amount of new electricity produced by wind turbines would dip by 50 percent in 2009, compared to the capacity added in 2008.

"Instead, this tax credit came through the Recovery Act, and we saw a 39 percent increase in the number of wind plants, wind power, generated over the course of last year," Gibbs said. Gibbs pointed to the administration's assistance to the renewable energy industry as an example of "investments for the future."

Did Gibbs correctly characterize the report's findings? Yes. But while the industry credits the stimulus bill with spurring new growth in 2009, it says the new growth hasn't necessarily translated into new jobs.

The industry did add nearly 10,000 megawatts of generating capacity in 2009, "shattering any expectations we had for the year, given the financial crisis," said Elizabeth Salerno, the AWEA's director of industry data and analysis.

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Utilities had a strong first quarter of the year based on projects that were already in the works before the financial meltdown of 2008. But projects dried up quickly in mid-year, before about $1.9 billion in renewable energy tax credits from the stimulus bill began to kick in, Salerno said.

Once the rules for qualifying for those credits were drafted, companies began using them to raise private capital and the year finished "significantly stronger" than expected, she said. "That really is due to the Recovery Act."

Wind power produced about 1.6 percent of the electricity used in the United States though October 2009, according to U.S. Department of Energy figures. That's up from about 1.25 percent in all of 2008, and the final figure for 2009 is likely to be close to 2 percent, Salerno said.

But while the wind projects produced new jobs for people installing and maintaining the new generating units, the stimulus funding "doesn't necessarily translate to increases in manufacturing," Salerno said.

"Overall, we've had some gains and some losses," she said. "I think we've been able to remain steady at about 85,000 jobs, which is about where we ended up at the end of 2008."

Salerno said the industry will be closely watching Obama's budget proposal, expected next week, for signs of continued support.

"Manufacturing needs a much longer time horizon to make investments," she said.

CNN's Emma Lacey-Bordeaux contributed to this report.