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Clean energy dreams

Presdient Obama
President Obama touts clean energy as a top priority in his 2011 State of the Union address. Image: Robert Couse-Baker via Flickr.

During the State of the Union address I had the privilege of being on the Washington Post State of the Union Expert Panel during The Post's live coverage of President Obama's speech. While my focus was on energy, with an entry on clean energy and one on rail, I also spoke to the recent Tunisian revolution and Minnesota Republican Representative Michelle Bachmann's bizarre turn as a Tea Party stand-in, doubling the GOP response.

As a long time political junkie, this was great fun for me, and also a chance to cover the peak oil agenda where I could.

Now, undoubtedly plenty of people in the peak oil community found President Obama's speech last night to be nothing but cow patties dipped in fool's gold. An empty rite designed to fill distracted American minds with more irrelevant pablum.

While that kind of savvy insight, or blistering cynicsm, has a place in the doomer echo chamber, it fails to consider that long established institutions like the federal government still have plenty of power to affect your life and mine.

And if you listen to people like Ralph Nader, who has racked up decades of victories against big corporations and entrenched interests, the voice of wisdom says that it's not a total waste of time to engage government. Indeed, if we don't continue to demand a sensible energy policy, then Big Oil, Big Coal and Nukes will certainly win. But if active citizens keep pushing, as Nader urges, then we will score some victories. Guaranteed.

In the wake of the speech the Internet is abuzz with analysis. As usual, Obama scored points for his eloquence, but many wonder how he'll translate that, and his increasing popularity, into real action and doable policies in the face of crippling Federal debt and a Republican House determined to keep all spending but defense in check.

Bright spot

Whatever may eventually shake out, those in the peak oil and clean energy communities had cause to cheer when Obama cited clean energy as the area where America "especially" needs to invest, calling for a wholesale cut of billions of dollars in oil subsidies to help pay for it.

After decades of an unfair playing field in energy investments, his line about oil industry favoritism rang all too true: "I don't know if you've noticed, but they're doing just fine on their own."

The near future looks pretty good for the oil industry too. American drivers are feeling pain at the pump just when new drivers in China and India are now competing for a shrinking supply of global crude. All while oil companies see their profits go through the roof.

Everybody knows that Big Oil controls Washington. Is there any hope for Obama to get past its army of lobbyists and barrels of cash to members of Congress?

Certainly after a century of oil production, an allegedly free market should not require the taxpayer to help bankroll the industry's higher costs as it moves toward unconventional oil like deepwater or tar sands.

"Instead of subsidizing yesterday's energy, let's invest in tomorrow's," Obama said.

That he singled out solar shingles as a next-wave technology was particularly encouraging. It's just this kind of product innovation that can help make solar a more seamlessly integrated aspect of both retrofits and new construction. And it shows that the pipeline from research to deployment works.

Rightly, Obama made clear that a shift to clean energy means opportunity for business, jobs and consumers if together we press for his goal of 80% of our electricity coming from clean sources by 2035.

Sure, we've heard this before, as I pointed out in my Jon Stewart video post in advance of the speech. And yes, this kind of investment should have begun when the Arab Oil Embargo gave us the oil crisis of 1973-74. But it's fruitless to lament the past. Now we have to start where we are.

The question is whether the energy business and those that finance it are going to get on board with a plan that gives America any chance at a future. Or, whether ExxonMobil, BP, Shell and the rest will continue to fleece the American public, while banks and our remaining big manufacturers hoard their vast accumulation of dough, outsource jobs and hold us hostage to the fossil fuel economy?

For Obama's vision to become a reality, he'll need all hands on deck.

Us versus them

"At stake is whether new jobs and industries take root in this country, or somewhere else," Obama said last night, echoing earlier statements by Energy Secretary Steven Chu that today is America's "Sputnik moment" as China threatens to pass us by on manufacturing clean energy technology.

We've already seen other countries surge to the forefront on clean energy, and despite our past of innovation, on manufacturing we're now the Johnny come-lately. But whether Americans will be motivated on the basis of national pride or get stuck in misguided notions that we're the world's only innovators —while shirking manufacturing and jobs—remains to be seen.

The problem is that, while President Obama laid out a compelling vision, and touted his own take on the same line delivered by eight presidents before him—decreasing oil supply and US dependence on foreign oil—he didn't in any way give urgency to the problem. He never said "peak oil." He never really defined the harsh particulars of our energy predicament. In that way he drew no momentum on the issue.

Seeking a broad coalition of stakeholders to get behind our "Sputnik moment" on a clean energy transition without laying out in stark terms what's at stake was a failure of leadership at a crucial moment.

Some might call his breezy approach politically savvy, the old, "don't scare the masses" thing. But I would argue that he would have more political strength if he made the menace of declining supply and increased competition from other countries an unassailable principle.

You don't win adherents to a middling battle.

The one way he can rectify this, and prove beyond a shadow of doubt that this is his key issue, is to now go on a national tour, using the bully pulpit to drive the message home with the seriousness it deserves. If you want to have a real race to the moon, it can't be a half-assed scheme trotted out once a year for a soaring speech.

Talk about kumbaya

It's expected that a president has to satisfy a lot of stakeholders when he makes a broad speech intended to inspire as much as to instruct. Obama was right on cue here when he invited the whole energy array to the table. "Some folks want wind and solar," he said. "Others want nuclear, clean coal and natural gas. To meet this goal, we will need them all — and I urge Democrats and Republicans to work together to make it happen."

While it was unconscionable that he mentioned the mythical clean coal, one supposes that throwing a bone to the deluded might help diffuse the natural tensions present in any call for a wholesale transformation of the energy industry. After all, few get on board when they think their livelihood is threatened.

Since his days as senator from a coal state, Obama has believed in clean coal. Maybe this Coen Brothers "Clean Coal Clean" ad spoof will help shake him free of obligatory allegiance to a go-nowhere technology.

He'll also need to get more real about being the first country to, "have a million electric vehicles on the road by 2015." This is a huge infrastructural issue with an immense number of moving parts.

And it continues to perpetrate the myth that we won't have to change the essentials of our lifestyle, the one car for each person paradigm. Too often leaders fail to acknowledge just how deeply fossil fuels are in everything we make, including our cars and roads. Oil is not just a source of fuel, its an input across production and beyond.

Positing nuclear as a solution at this juncture also fails to consider its many problems, from build out costs to convoluted financing schemes to peak uranium to its essential immorality as an energy option. Not to mention what a political football nuclear waste is; we've been waiting two decades for Yucca Mountain.

Does the president believe that there's plenty of time to adjust American perception of what is truly possible? Otherwise, much of what he said last night on energy is either a lie or a delusion.

Obama was much more on target in talking about building out rail infrastructure. It too is a job-creation bonanza and is a much more realistic aspect of how we'll live, travel and get around going forward.

Show me the money

For those of our readers whose primary concern is toxic American debt and an economy perched on the precipice of utter collapse, there's probably nothing that I can say to assuage your disbelief in the possibility of any progress on clean energy and rail in the US as you likely believe we're too broke to do anything anyway. And you may be right. You probably are.

But Obama's speech is cause for hope for those of us who recognize the myriad interrelated problems, yet are naive enough or hopeful enough or willing enough to imagine that at some point we'll see a corrective course in the US government, and that as a nation we'll pitch our resources to those areas where we'll have to transform or else. Staying at the table remains crucial for those of us who want to be in the process of change, not wholly outside it.

Given President Obama's willingness to call clean energy a top priority, it's up to us now to retain enough of that naivety and hope that we're willing to lobby, write, call, and blog about a clean energy economy, or a post fossil fuels economy, on whatever scale, and to live our lives in such a way that we demonstrate our powers through what we buy and do.

No man can do it alone. Nor with all minds closed against him.

--Lindsay Curren

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