Clean energy investments received top billing in last night's State of the Union address, following President Obama's opening remarks concerning greater cooperation in the wake of the attack on Representative Gabrielle Giffords in Arizona.
Again referencing the space race of the 1960s, Obama said that US innovation in clean energy is the country's best solution for remaining competitive in the global market for green jobs.
This assertion confirms that energy policy remains a top agenda item for the administration (though no reference was made to climate change). However, the administration redefined its definition of clean energy in order to find compromise with conservatives on Capitol Hill.
In addition to wind, solar, geothermal and ocean power, the definition now includes nuclear energy (which Republicans love), and a greater focus on so-called clean coal and natural gas.
This expanded definition is what allowed Obama to say that "by 2035, 80% of America's electricity will come from clean energy sources."
In this instance, renewable energy advocates will have to rely on market forces to float their technologies to the top. State Renewable Energy Standards may be revised to include specific targets for renewables vs "clean" technologies.
Unfortunately, Obama made the various "clean" technologies seem equally beneficial, while they're not.
Construction of new nuclear plants is not economically feasible without massive federal support. And carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) projects, at the heart of the clean-coal movement, are similarly expensive, still largely untested and incapable of reaching the necessary scale in the short or mid term.
That leaves natural gas as the main competitor. The American Wind Energy Association said this week that wind power is now cost-competitive with natural gas for the first time. And natural gas isn't as clean as we've been led to believe, according to new EPA analysis, which takes into account methane releases during mining, transport an processing. The future for natural gas relies significantly on poisonous fracking technologies.
Renewables may yet come out ahead in the U.S. if the playing field is leveled. To this end, Obama also encouraged Congress to cut all subsidies for the oil industry, which amounts to $4 billion a year.
Obama's original commitment was to invest $150 billion in renewable energy over the next 10 years (which, at the time, wasn't enough according to the experts, especially compared to China's investments).
Comments on the Address
Denise Bode, CEO AWEA: It is true that fossil fuels receive five times more in federal incentives than renewable energy. We don’t believe that is in line with Americans’ current priorities... We applaud the president’s emphasis on innovation and ingenuity, and getting more jobs from clean energy. Wind energy has improved its efficiency 40% in five years. In tight budget years, it makes sense to invest our money in that kind of new technology.
Jonathan Lash, President, World Resources Institute: Obama’s declaration of a Sputnik moment is a reminder of the opportunity before us to shift to an energy future that can make America’s economy the most competitive and innovative in the world... But more is needed to truly protect the planet– especially from the threats of climate change. After a year of record-breaking temperatures and a string of notable extreme weather events, the urgency of shifting to low-carbon energy and tackling climate change is as clear as ever.
Kate Gordon, Vice President of Energy Policy, Center for American Progress Action Fund: President Barack Obama reaffirmed his commitment to American innovation and ingenuity by proposing new investments in clean energy research, development, and deployment. This stands in sharp contrast to the Republican Study Committee, whose plan undermines American competitiveness by chopping away at key programs designed to leverage private investment in clean energy solutions for tomorrow."