Here is the portion of President Obama’s State of the Union Address devoted to energy and climate, followed by my reaction:
This is our generation’s Sputnik moment. Two years ago, I said that we needed to reach a level of research and development we haven’t seen since the height of the Space Race. And in a few weeks, I will be sending a budget to Congress that helps us meet that goal. We’ll invest in biomedical research, information technology, and especially clean energy technology, an investment that will strengthen our security, protect our planet, and create countless new jobs for our people.
Already, we’re seeing the promise of renewable energy. Robert and Gary Allen are brothers who run a small Michigan roofing company. After September 11th, they volunteered their best roofers to help repair the Pentagon. But half of their factory went unused, and the recession hit them hard. Today, with the help of a government loan, that empty space is being used to manufacture solar shingles that are being sold all across the country. In Robert’s words, “We reinvented ourselves.”
That’s what Americans have done for over 200 years: reinvented ourselves. And to spur on more success stories like the Allen Brothers, we’ve begun to reinvent our energy policy. We’re not just handing out money. We’re issuing a challenge. We’re telling America’s scientists and engineers that if they assemble teams of the best minds in their fields, and focus on the hardest problems in clean energy, we’ll fund the Apollo projects of our time.
At the California Institute of Technology, they’re developing a way to turn sunlight and water into fuel for our cars. At Oak Ridge National Laboratory, they’re using supercomputers to get a lot more power out of our nuclear facilities. With more research and incentives, we can break our dependence on oil with biofuels, and become the first country to have a million electric vehicles on the road by 2015.
We need to get behind this innovation. And to help pay for it, I’m asking Congress to eliminate the billions in taxpayer dollars we currently give to oil companies. I don’t know if — I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but they’re doing just fine on their own. (Laughter) So instead of subsidizing yesterday’s energy, let’s invest in tomorrow’s.
Now, clean energy breakthroughs will only translate into clean energy jobs if businesses know there will be a market for what they’re selling. So tonight, I challenge you to join me in setting a new goal: By 2035, 80 percent of America’s electricity will come from clean energy sources.
Some folks want wind and solar. 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.
I guess I have mixed reactions. Firstly, I’m delighted that this section was the first substantive area discussed in the speech, once the general platitudes were over. I take that to mean the President is serious about still trying to do more in this area, despite last year’s failure to pass any kind of climate plan.
I find it sad that there was no explicit discussion of the incontrovertible scientific fact that we are destabilizing our climate with our energy system. Elsewhere in the world, this can be discussed frankly, but in the US, out of deference to half the political spectrum being in total denial, the elephant in the room cannot be named. There are aggressive goals for converting the energy system to “clean energy” with no discussion at all as to why that might be necessary. I understand why the President did this: he needs Republican votes to pass anything and there’s no point in antagonizing them.
Realistically, money for research, more tax credits for renewables, PHEVs, etc are about all that can be hoped for (and in any case are the most important things at this stage – we have to build alternatives out to reasonable scale before it will make political sense to tax the residual carbon emitting energy sources).
My reaction to the 80% of US electricity being “clean” by 2035 is how? What on earth are Republicans going to agree to that could plausibly set us on that path? (Btw, see Michael Levi for discussion of what “clean” might mean here). Here’s the EIA’s reference case for electricity generation by fuel (from the early release of the 2011 Annual Energy Outlook):
That looks pretty plausible as what will happen if we continue more-or-less on our present course. If you score the NG at half clean, as Levi suggests, that implies that we will be at 43 1/2% “clean” by 2035. To get to 80%, we’d have to almost completely wipe out conventional coal generation and massively expand nuclear and/or renewables (or “clean coal” technology that basically doesn’t exist right now). I’m all for it, but at the moment I’m completely skeptical of the ability of our political system to respond anything like that energetically and rationally to our situation.
I guess we’ll have to wait and see the details of what the administration is thinking.
As to the million electric vehicles on the road by 2015, that sounds more plausible. GM is now thinking of expanding Chevy Volt production to 120000 in 2012 (and even 2011 capacity from 10000 to 25000 – praise the Lord!). If we are willing to go along with GMs marketers and call the Volt an “electric vehicle”, and if the administration keeps the tax credit high enough to sustain the demand, then GM alone could build a sizeable fraction of the million vehicles. And of course, there’s the Leaf, the electric Ford Focus coming along, Tesla’s etc. It seems like a doable goal – aggressive, sure, but doable.