Thursday, August 19, 2010

Mixed signals from the White House on clean energy investment

By Alex Trembath, originally published at Energetics.

President Obama has been touring the nation, touting his administration's efforts to expand federal investment in clean tech manufacturing. At each stop, clean energy jobs are the major topic of discussion, with international economic competition and environmental goals somewhere on the edges of his stump speech.

At ZBB Energy in Wisconsin, a battery and renewables storage producer, Obama heralded the $1.3 million in federal stimulus dollars invested in the company while calling for 800,000 new clean energy jobs by 2012. On a fundraising trek for Governor Ted Strickland through Toldeo, Ohio, the President applauded local renewables manufacturing, saying, "There is a whole series of huge potential manufacturing industries in which we end up being world leaders and, as a bonus, end up creating a more energy-efficient economy that is also good for the environment." And, at a DCCC fundraiser in Hollywood, the President recounted the imperative of reducing carbon emissions "because we want those clean energy jobs built here in the United States, not in China, not in Germany."

In the meantime, however, critics are taking note of disturbing signals from the White House on clean energy investment. Jesse Jenkins of WattHead and the Breakthrough Institute pointed out yesterday that "a number of (as yet unfulfilled) energy and environmental policy pledges have been removed from the WhiteHouse.gov page in recent weeks." Among the dropped pledges is the President's commitment to invest $150 billion over ten years in clean tech R&D. This follows months of inaction from the President on a comprehensive climate and energy bill, the American Power Act. What remains of that bill is now floundering in Congress without the inclusion of any cap on carbon emissions, environmentalists' dream policy goal for creating a clean energy economy that was thoroughly demolished during the summer.

As Andrew Revkin points out, the recently missing $150 billion in clean tech R&D may be the result of the failure of cap-and-trade to pass the Senate, leaving the White House's assumed funding source for the investment dead in the water. But the source shouldn't matter as much as the policy goal itself; expert energy organizations from the IEA to the AEIC and dozens of Nobel Laureates have called for significant increases in energy technology R&D, on the order of $15-30 billion annually to keep pace with the required rate of decarbonization and to compete with other nations on similar paths.

We can only hope that such mixed signals on energy policy do not become standard operating procedure for the Obama White House. The President's recent (and encouraging) repeated calls for clean tech manufacturing investment may be signs of his attempt to make amends for relative idleness on the climate bill. And perhaps some leeway may be given in anticipation of the November midterm elections, which by many accounts will be some degree of devastating to the President's party. But, fingers-crossed, by the new year the President needs to have developed a powerful and sustained message for decarbonization and clean tech, and the time for broken promises and mixed signals will be over.

As part of a non-emotional response to the BP oil spill, and in anticipation of a $600 billion clean energy industry projected for 2020, Obama must direct the power of his office towards energy competitiveness the way he did with health care last year. Some Republicans have already indicated a willingness to work with Democrats on clean tech, and this effort could mark the first time in his presidency that Obama can successfully unite the parties towards a common policy. But, politics aside, the United States can't afford to sit on the bench any longer.

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