Obama delivers boost to clean energy UPDATED

Yesterday I blogged on what Carol Browner’s departure could mean for green policies under the Obama administration. Environmentalists were worried that this showed a shift by the White House away from tackling climate change and towards appeasing business.

They needn’t have worried. In the president’s State of the Union Address last night, he spent a considerable amount of time stressing his commitment to clean energy, and making some important and concrete pledges at the same time.

Calling this “our Sputnik moment”, Obama said:

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.

There followed some waffle about individual clean energy projects, and then came the killer line:

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 you’ve noticed, but they’re doing just fine on their own. So instead of subsidising yesterday’s energy, let’s invest in tomorrow’s.

So no more oil subsidies? Given how toxic the issue of cap-and-trade became in areas where the coal industry played a big role, this could trigger an almighty row.

And then another policy proposal:

So tonight, I challenge you to join me in setting a new goal: by 2035, 80 per cemt of America’s electricity will come from clean energy sources.

Such a target would take a massive push on all fronts, as Obama admitted:

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 as Politico reports, the president has already secured bipartisan support for such a proposal.

Sensibly, perhaps, given public sentiment in the US, the president couched this all in terms of energy security rather than tackling climate change (the words “climate change” did not appear once in the speech). And that is the basis on which the speech is being praised this morning. This is from the Securing America’s Future Energy group, which campaigns for energy reform and a move away from oil:

Many of the president’s proposals tonight represent important steps toward combating our energy security vulnerabilities.

No word yet from the oil industry though – I’ll keep an eye on the API’s reaction and let you know when it comes.

But some green campaigners will be disappointed that there was no mention of carbon emissions or cap-and-trade.

It is also worth saying that for all of the fine words about stimulating green jobs, the US might yet find that increased demand for new energy technologies creates new jobs in places like China, where labour is so much cheaper.

As Ditlev Engel, CEO of Vestas, the world’s biggest turbine maker, told the FT earlier this month:

If you can make a turbine in Asia and deliver it to Europe at a comparable price to making it in Europe, we have a problem. So we have to make sure we can always compete with what we call ‘Asia plus freight’.

But at least Obama’s words should help give the clean industry some certainty about demand from the US. As we reported this week, unpredictable US policies had led to China overtaking them in terms of capacity of wind power installed last year.

UPDATE – Michael Levi has run the numbers on what the 80 per cent commitment means. His analysis, like mine, is that it is pretty significant.

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