Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Obama's Sputnik moment boosts clean energy in state of the union

The bed had barely grown cold from Hu Jintao's visit to Washington and Chicago, than Barack Obama has invoked China's enthusiasm for renewable energy technology in his state of the union address. After comparing Google and Facebook to other innovators such as the Wright Brothers and Thomas Edison, he said:

Stoking fears among Americans of getting left behind in the global economy is nothing new. Obama has called for a new Sputnik moment before. But applying it so directly to clean energy and urging a "reinvention of energy policy" is ambitious particularly in the week when his energy tzar, Carol Browner, announced yesterday that she is leaving Obama's White House staff, and is unlikely to be replaced.

He also announced a diversion of federal dollars, presumably subsidies, from the oil industry to the renewable sector. He said: "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 you’ve noticed, but they’re doing just fine on their own. So instead of subsidizing yesterday’s energy, let’s invest in tomorrow’s."

Other targets he set include 1 million electric vehicles on the road by 2015, and perhaps more surprisingly, he said that by 2035, 80% of America’s electricity will come from "clean energy sources", although some of those energy sources he cited are cleaner than others.

"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."

But more surprising still was a rare dig at the nation's transport infrastructure, and perhaps even the very unAmerican suggestion that travelling by rail may be better than travelling by car. 

"Within 25 years, our goal is to give 80% of Americans access to high-speed rail, which could allow you go places in half the time it takes to travel by car. For some trips, it will be faster than flying – without the pat-down. As we speak, routes in California and the Midwest are already underway."
Countries in Europe and Russia invest more in their roads and railways than we do. China is building faster trains and newer airports. Meanwhile, when our own engineers graded our nation’s infrastructure, they gave us a “D.”

This drew a scathing response from Kevin A. Hassett, the director of economic policy studies and a senior fellow at the neo-con thinktank American Enterprise Institute, gave his quick analysis on PBS:

"If I were a member of Congress, I would offer an amendment to the high-speed rail bill that spent the same amount of money on pixie dust. Pixie dust has a better chance of delivering economic growth. the green jobs fantasy is worse. This is Epcot center economics at its worse."

Transportation is the great elephant in the Oval Office car ownership and use is so deeply ingrained in the American way - I'm only beginning to realise that ownership is a right, not a privilege - and he will face a hard task in persuading Americans into those 1m electric cars he wants to see on the road in four years' time.

But it is an issue Obama must get to grips with if he is serious about reducing American emissions. According to the Environmental Protection Agency:

In 2008, transportation sources contributed approximately 27 percent of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. Transportation is also the fastest-growing source of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, accounting for 47 percent of the net increase in total U.S. emissions since 1990.
After the last standing ovation of the evening, Obama congenially worked the crowds - they seemed like lobbyists but they could have been Congressmen (it's hard to tell in Washington sometimes, I suppose). Someone from California's hi-speed rail lobby, and another from the clean coal lobby asked for autographs. To the latter, the president admitted he was a long time supporter of "clean coal" but that "we need to do it comprehensively."

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