The State of Clean Energy

Roughly 24 hours after Politico reported that Carol Browner, Barack Obama's energy and environmental adviser, was leaving, the president came out strong for clean energy in his State of the Union address: He set a goal of getting 80 percent of our energy from clean sources by 2035.

It's premature to start the party, though. Obama has made us happy before. As a candidate, he promised: "My presidency will mark a new chapter in America's leadership on climate change that will strengthen our security and create millions of new jobs in the process." That didn't turn into climate legislation. And while including wind and solar power as part of his national vision in his speech, the president conceded that he was open to having some energy sources be nuclear, "clean coal," and natural gas -- types of energy that make environmentalists cringe, even if they emit less carbon into the atmosphere than oil and regular coal do.

There's a good chance that Obama, who prides himself on compromise and who struck a bipartisan tone tonight, could be all talk. He didn't explain whether national regulations would ensure the 80 percent goal or whether tax credits or incentives would try to encourage the outcome. But he did -- and this has become a signature Obama move -- draw a strong line against the opposition. He promised to end tax breaks and government subsidies for oil companies. That gave Denise Bode from the American Wind Energy Association, who sent out a positive -- if qualified -- statement during the speech, something to agree with; the association has long argued that fossil fuels have such an advantage when it comes to government investments that wind and solar energy, which haven't gotten comparable government support, aren't competing on a level playing field.

Obama compared the race to innovate in renewable energies to the space race, calling it a new "Apollo mission." Of course, he was talking not about sending people to the moon again but about the ingenuity, education, and public investment that the effort inspired. Science and technological innovation got marquee treatment in the speech and propelled Obama toward the passage of the night: "Maintaining our leadership in research and technology is crucial to America's success. But if we want to win the future -- if we want innovation to produce jobs in America and not overseas -- then we also have to win the race to educate our kids."

What's been problematic about the president's approach up to now is that, despite his efforts to pump funding into the clean-energy sector, as he did with about $90 billion of the stimulus, renewable energy hasn't taken off. Obama had a line in his speech that summed up why this is so: "Now, clean-energy breakthroughs will only translate into clean-energy jobs if businesses know there will be a market for what they're selling." That problem is one I described two months ago in a piece for TAP, and one that we'll have to face if we want to employ the slew of workers we've trained for green jobs . We've already invested in the next generation of wind-turbine technicians and solar-panel installers by sending government money to community colleges for training programs. Now, we have to make sure they have a future.

Hope for a renewed effort on climate-change legislation in this term is slim. As Ryan Lizza reported last week in The New Yorker, Republicans in the House are too busy investigating the faux-scandal "Climategate" and determining whether global warming is actually real to try to work together on legislation that taxes or places caps on carbon emissions. It's unclear how this new goal will play out amid this political reality.

Speeches are nice, but the policy that follows will matter more. Even Bode from the American Wind Energy Association says her organization needs to review the proposals. Achieving the 80 percent goal is more than plausible. "Wind energy is ready to go now; we don't need to wait nearly three decades," Bode says. That's backed up by a new study that says we could be getting 100 percent of our clean energy from renewable sources by 2030, as reported by the Huffington Post. Discovery News, in reporting on the same study, noted that the biggest block is political and human will. Obama's speech was meant to demonstrate the desire, but we'll see if that translates into action.

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