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’s 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 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 cynicism, 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 a person 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’ll win 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 but defense spending in check.

Bright spot

Whatever may eventually shake out, those in the peak oil and clean energy communities had cause to cheer last night 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?

Well, 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 for decades, as I pointed out in my Jon Stewart video post yesterday 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 offered 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 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.

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 last night’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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  1. Bob Egbert says

    I like your positive spin on the SOTU speech, and I hope for what you hope for. However, I know a lot of people (including friends and relatives) that object to and will oppose anything that Obama proposes simply because he proposed it. In a Nation where Sarah Palin, Michele Bachman, Jim Demint, and James Inhofe are considered by many to be serious and respected leaders (in addition to our own Va. leadership) it’s very hard to keep a positive outlook.

    • says

      Well, I’m not sure that it’s a wholly positive spin…

      But yes, the complex, even deranged political and socio-cultural picture in the US compounds the difficulties in moving forward for the good of the nation. Seems we’re a people more interested in who is in control, rather than it what right is being done.

      I believe in Greek myth they call this a tragic flaw.

  2. says

    “Clean energy?” What, pray tell, is that? Solar collectors certainly have a place, but they are massively expensive and do not produce when it’s dark or too cloudy. Wind also has a place, but are you aware of the pathetic and massively expensive results it is producing in places like Denmark?

    As to oil owning Washington, again, have you pondered the facts? 80 percent of US petroleum consumption goes into automobiles’ gas tanks and infrastructures. Automobiles are inherently and wildly insane machines, from an energy and environment standpoint. 3,500 pound grocery fetchers that sit idle 95 percent of their lives. And my mom’s Prius averages 40 mpg, and Leafs and Volts will run on coal, so how do you imagine “alternative” cars are any kind of answer.

    Obama is an enemy, not a friend. He is blowing smoke at the public on this issue. Serious reform requires radical reconstruction of our towns and infrastructures, not magical thinking about “clean energy.”

    • says

      Allow me to clarify. I’m am not of the crowd who thinks clean energy provides a panacea, nor a miracle. I find it to be one part of the picture, and one that needs more attention or it will go nowhere while Big Oil, Big Coal, and Nukes will fight with every ounce of their corporate strength to preserve their interests. And I think its greatest hope is as a distributed power solution. Does it have drawbacks? Yes. That’s observation and analysis level 101, though. It also has potential, particularly if it’s in the market more. Who would have thought those clunky “car phones” of the late 70s early 80s would have become the iPhones of today, capable of myriad functions? Or that Morse code would have essentially morphed into the Internet? But as the market opened, innovation was allowed to flourish. From dots and dashes to Flash and Java. I mean, come on.

      My analysis makes it abundantly clear that I don’t see the one person per car paradigm as having a future.

      Still, I think folks are naive and foolish if they imagine that a massive institution like government is going to go down without a fight. Far better to be heard with ideas and courage than to write it all off as if everything people want to do to build the next iteration on life will happen wholly outside of existing structures.

      Finally, when one proposes or accepts one idea, it does not inherently mean they reject another. That would be illogical. So one can see a place for clean energy, while also embracing an idea like transition town infrastructures. Look around at the stuff I’ve written on this magazine at that will be all too plainly clear.

      • says

        Well, it’s good to see you admitting that market worship and technological cornucopianism are the roots of your analysis. Of course, one wonders why all these alternative energy systems, all of which are actually quite old, haven’t been perfected by now. One possible answer is that they are unscalable losers. But you refuse to ponder that possibility, don’t you?

        Meanwhile, government is not the main problem. Big business is. Government responds to what our corporate overclass wants. If we can’t admit that much, we are in very deep trouble.

        • says


          I get the challenges of scaling clean energy. If my choice is no energy or some clean energy though, I am going to push for the clean energy. Oil is on the way out. If we don’t develop some solutions we’ll have no solutions. I hardly see that as a plan going forward.

          Furthermore, I write all the time on the challenges of scalability. But a good many of those challenges are BIG FOSSIL FUEL’S stranglehold on industry and government.

          I also write almost every day on big business controlling government. It’s what I do.



  3. says

    Major disappoinment

    Obama clearly is a politician type and hasn’t understood ANYTHING about the issue.

    First of all top priority shouldn’t be on “clean” energy production, but on energy CONSERVATION.

    Considering the starting point, and especially for the US, gaining watts (producing negawatts) is MUCH EASIER than producing new clean watts (ok kW/H) to replace/complement the existing “dirty” ones.

    R&D is not going to find a miraculous “energy producing machine”, does he at least realize that ? (ok fusion, yes …)

    TOP PRIORITY for the US should be :
    – increase the gas tax (making it partly directly redistributed as proposed by James Hansen if necessary, with monthly government check directly based on the tax accounting : something clearly new aded to the price signal and providing a direct feel of energy consumed by the nation monthly)

    – similar taxes on other fossile fuels

    – insulation (and stoping heating or cooling like crazy, seasons are a fine thing)

    – transport ? not sure, major potential efficiency gains are there in the cars fleet (and not necessary to go electric, ie lighter smaller, less powerfull ICE cars can also produce a lot of negawatts, and electric cars also need to be lighter less powerfull to make sense anyway, they cannot be current cars except electric, full stop), and public transport were it doesn’t work doesn’t work, where it works it works

    – major shift in communication with proper balance between peak oil aspects and climate aspect. PO alarmism shouldn’t be refered to using “energy security” anymore, but called for what it is, and hence the TOP FOCUS on energy conservation/efficiency gains.

    But for sure I don’t expect much

    Add to that that CCS typically is atrociously stupid, at least 30% or 40% energy and associated ressources lost, mining pollution increased by so much. Hydrocarbons aren’t TRASH, they are very valuable materials, stop refering to them as “commodities” use “RAW MATERIAL” instead.
    CCS is the prime example of BAU easter island mindset, technological statue.
    ALL R&D and projects on that should be stopped right NOW.

    And of course don’t forget that the tax aspect is fully in line with the US pure self economics interests (survival at this point after so many suicidal years).

    But then again, I clearly don’t expect much anymore, a bit sad !

    Moreover what he doesn’t understand is that energy conservation (besides direct financial benefits such as lowering trade balance deficit) are much more prone to create jobs than this “clean energy” non sense, no energy is clean, just deal with it.

    Insulating houses & buildings can create more jobs than buying Danish or Chinese windmills payed by tax payer wind feed in tariff, exactly the same for PV.

    Time to wake up guys, hurry up a bit

    • says

      Definitely conservation is the absolute biggest answer to our energy issues, and, as you rightly point out, it’s a huge job creation mechanism. Get that going, and we at least see some problems addressed simultaneously.

      Then we also have to look at how individual homes and other buildings will address their individual energy needs. It’s not like retrofitting every place with a fireplace or wood burning stove/furnace is any kind of solution either.

      And since we’re so far from there yet—how many non peak-oilers do you know who talk energy issues every day? This is iPod nation, communication is our #1 concern, which is why Obama’s failure to call the problem out while calling for a “Sputnik” moment was a huge disconnect.

      In the end, with conservation, we may just be back to the way folks addressed cold long ago. With two knitting needles and a decent few skeins of wool yarn.

      Sheep farming anyone?

    • says

      Indeed. If the market doesn’t take us to $10/gallon gasoline on its own (and what would prices look like without those massive subsidies) then taxing it is clearly the answer. Gore’s been saying that for years.

      Hard nugget now is that we’ve built out our society on the premise of cheap and abundant energy. That means that either market solutions alone, or taxing alone, or the two combined even, will hit the poor the hardest. That’s where I think rationing or some system that provides socio-economic equity is crucial. But just try to get that past the GOP.

      Trying times ahead, for sure.

      • says

        The fully redistributed tax as defined by Hansen (letter to Obama for instance) is I think much better than rationing for the time being, does’nt hit the poor hardest, on the contrary they come out positive if less energy consumed than average. It is also much simpler and cheaper to implement, and doesn’t create all these markets and finance tricks like cap and trade or personal tradable quotas.
        And in any case the tax should be presented as a “push” on the overable infrastructure and products to accelerate the adaptation (and avoid fast crash if at all possible)
        Note : some more on quotas vs tax in below thread (screen name YvesT on TOD) :

        • says

          And don’t forget that a tax doesn’t change a country GDP, it’s really all about accelerating the adaptation by being able to transfer money that would go all to exporter once the price tag is a market one.

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