Thursday, January 26, 2012

Latest from: CleanTechnica

Latest from: CleanTechnica

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U.S. Voters Love Clean Energy, SOTU Swing Voter Reactions Show

Posted: 26 Jan 2012 09:09 AM PST

solar panels ground-mounted

I’ve written many, many times about the overwhelming support for clean energy in the U.S. Unfortunately, a certain portion of our Congressional leaders, as well as billionaires in the oil industry, are trying to attack that support for clean energy by running smear campaigns and spewing complete lies (we’ve covered several of these more times than I can remember). Apparently, so far, Americans aren’t buying it. Check out these results from an analysis of 50 swing voters watching the State of the Union address this week:

Not surprisingly, the moment in the speech that brought the most positive reaction was Obama's mention of the death of Osama bin Laden. It drew an average reading of 80 on the 0-100 scale used by the meters. Obama's call for more investment in renewable energy drew nearly as strong a reaction, however, said Andrew Baumann, another of the pollsters who conducted the study. The passages of the speech that talked about phasing out subsidies for oil companies and competing with China and Germany for new developments in wind power and solar energy did particularly well.

Of course, an analysis of a focus group of 50 isn’t definitive, but I’ve yet to see any real evidence that Koch and GOP smear campaigns and misinformation regarding Solyndra, loan guarantees, and clean energy are having much effect. It really seems like a bad political move for these folks to make clean energy the supposed enemy of the U.S.

I understand that their fortunes are tied to us remaining addicted to fossil fuels, but I think they’d be better off just continuing their hidden policy attacks on clean energy than also trying to make it a political issue. But that’s just my two cents.

h/t Climate Progress | ground-mounted solar panels via shutterstock

Related posts:

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White House Releasing More Details on 2012 Energy Plan

Posted: 26 Jan 2012 08:49 AM PST

Following up on the clean energy promises and programs mentioned in Obama’s 2012 State of the Union speech on Tuesday, below is more detail on Obama’s new energy plan. This is a full repost from Climate Progress (emphasis added):

obama

Obama delivering the 2012 State of the Union. White House Photo, Pete Souza.

by Daniel J. Weiss

Today President Obama will give two speeches about his clean energy blueprint announced Tuesday during the State of the Union address. The first talk will occur at a United Parcel Service facility in Las Vegas where he plans to discuss American workers developing American energy. Buckley Air Force base in Aurora, Colorado will host the second address, which will focus on energy security.

In conjunction with these speeches, the White House released more details about its clean energy proposals beyond the State of the Union address or the Blueprint for America document.[1] Here is brief rundown on the details of these proposals that rely on existing executive authority, and do not require legislation.

  • The lease sale of 7,250 unleased blocks covering 38 million acres in the central Gulf of Mexico could yield 1 billion barrels of oil and 4 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.  The minimum bid for these leases will be nearly triple the previous amount.  This could raise nearly $4 billion if companies lease every available acre.  The leases will stipulate that companies must develop these areas promptly or risk losing them, which should increase oil and gas production.
  • The Advanced Research Projects Agency – Energy (ARPA-E) — will announce a new research competition to develop innovative methods to use natural gas as transportation fuel.  Hopefully, this contest will lead to the development and deployment of breakthrough technologies that can dramatically reduce oil use and pollution, create new jobs, and save drivers money.
  • The Navy will add 1 gigawatt (1,000 megawatts) of renewable electricity generation capacity for its "shore-side" installations.  This is enough power for a quarter-million homes.   The Navy will use "existing authorities such as power purchase agreements… [to] ensure these energy projects are cost neutral and require no up-front investments by the government."

There are also proposals that would require legislation to become law, so Americans depend on Congress to act:

  • The blueprint would include new incentives to increase natural gas use for heavy trucks and buses.  This fuel burns more cleanly and is more secure than oil.  Converting part of this fleet to natural gas could reduce oil consumption by over 1 million barrels per day, as well as slashing particulate and toxic pollution from truck and bus exhaust.

The "New Alternative Transportation to Give Americans Solutions (NAT GAS) Act of 2011," sponsored by Senators Robert Menendez (D-NJ), Harry Reid (D-NV), and Richard Burr (R-NC), "would extend tax credits for natural gas vehicles and building refueling infrastructure, and be fully paid for by a temporary user fee on natural gas used as a vehicle fuel."

CAP analysis estimates that deployment of 3.5 million natural gas fueled trucks and busses could reduce oil use by over 1 million barrels per day.

Some conservatives – lead by the Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity – attacked the House version of this legislation, H.R. 1380, because of the counter intuitive claim that "natural gas vehicle subsidies hurt consumers" by providing more fuel choices for heavy trucks.  These attacks convinced nineteen House Republican cosponsors to take the unusual step of withdrawing their name from the bill.

This plan should be accompanied by additional safeguards to reduce air, water, and methane pollution from shale gas production.

  • The President will ask Congress to create tax incentives to help manufacturers increase efficiency and use additional clean energy. In addition, he will ask for an extension of the Production Tax Credit for wind energy that provides 2.2 cents per kilowatt-hour credit for electricity generated by wind.  It expires at the end of 2012.  Without an extension, 37,000 jobs in the wind energy industry could be lost.

As with almost any government proposal or legislation, "the devil is in the details."  More specifics about these and the other elements of the clean energy blueprint would make more in-depth analysis possible.

— Daniel J. Weiss is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress Action Fund

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Clean Links: Solar for Agriculture, New Solar Inverters, Chinese Solar Companies Flooding U.S. Market, Big Wind Farms, & More…

Posted: 26 Jan 2012 08:35 AM PST

Some more cleantech stories of the day:

greenvolts solar

ISD Installs GreenVolts in California's Coachella Valley (Photo: Business Wire)

Solar

1. GreenVolts has “announced a strategic partnership with Independent Solar Developers (ISD), a turnkey solar system developer, owner, and operator that specializes in providing solar energy solutions for Southern California agricultural applications.” GreenVolts is the “provider of the industry's first and only complete and fully integrated solar system,” the company notes.  ”Using solar energy for agriculture is a large and untapped opportunity. In California alone, agricultural businesses require over 2,000 MW of capacity and use more than 10 TWh annually. These businesses have plenty of land and sun, ideal for solar energy, and are very interested in lowering their cost of electricity, which can exceed 20 percent of production costs.”

2. Solar Edge has launched a new line of North American inverters. “SolarEdge inverters once again top the CEC list with an industry leading  98% weighted average efficiency. The new range of inverters are designed for North American installations, and can be ordered with an extended operating temperature range of -40°F – 140°F (-40°C – 60°C).”

3. Chinese solar technology producers are flooding the U.S. market in anticipation of U.S. government duties that could soon be imposed on such imports, according to an evaluation of U.S. Customs and Border Protection data released yesterday by the Coalition for American Solar Manufacturing (CASM). According to CASM, these Chinese solar companies “have more than doubled imports of crystalline silicon solar cells and modules” in the past several months. Of course, CASM “alleges that the recent 110 percent surge in import volume since July 2011 is further proof of illegal dumping and subsidies by Chinese solar producers and warrants a finding of critical circumstances that would apply retroactive duties to Chinese imports.”

4. Wells Fargo and Enfinity announce $100-million solar fund. The joint program will have Wells Fargo providing $100 million to projects developed by Enfinity, “one of North America's leading solar energy companies for commercial, municipal, educational and utility-scale customers,” naturally. Enfinity America Corporation's CEO, Rafael Dobrzynski, said, "The solar industry landscape is fast-changing; solar developers can no longer rely on incentives like Treasury's cash grant program to make their projects viable. Enfinity has always been able to call upon its highly effective network of financing relationships – and this latest partnership with Wells Fargo will enable us to apply secure, robust financing to the many commercial, industrial and municipal solar energy opportunities in the United States."

Wind

1. American Electric Power has signed long-term power purchase agreements for wind projects totaling 358.65 megawatts (MW) of capacity in Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas. American Electric Power is a subsidiary Southwestern Electric Power Co. (SWEPCO). ”Together with a 49.2-MW agreement signed by the Oklahoma Municipal Power Authority, SWEPCO and its affiliates have exceeded the 400-MW renewable energy commitment in a recent settlement of legal issues involving the John W. Turk Jr. Power Plant.”

2. Iberdrola has just started construction on a 22-MW wind farm in Sierra de las Cabras, Spain. “The company is to invest € 22 million on commissioning this wind farm, which is scheduled to be connected to the grid by the end of 2012.” The wind farm will be located in Jumilla and will use 11 Gamesa wind turbines (capacity of 2 megawatts each). Iberdrola has six wind farms in operation in Sierra de las Cabras, totaling 140 megawatts of capacity.

Clean Cars

1. Oorja Protonics is working on a “range extender” for electric vehicles which involves its hybrid approach of using a methanol fuel cell to provide energy to ensure that batteries have sufficient charge to run. The company has traditionally teamed up fuel cells with forklifts, and is looking to build on its success there. “Fuel cells are very good for steady power. We have a hybrid approach where the battery provides the peak power requirements and the fuel cell can be a steady energy supply on board,” CEO Sanjiv Malhotra.

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Solar Innovation, Investment Shifting to Installation (Away from Solar Panels)

Posted: 26 Jan 2012 08:18 AM PST

The focus of solar innovation and investment is shifting from panels to installation, according to a new Lux Research report, "Swimming Downstream: Evaluating Up-and-Coming Solar Installers and Developers."

“A flurry of M&A activity and an influx of venture capital dollars to solar service providers have led to innovation concentrated on creating new, lean business models in an extremely fragmented downstream landscape,” a news release today noted.

"Downstream start-ups raised over $1 billion, with SolarCity, SunRun, Recurrent Energy, SunEdison and Solar Power Partners leading the way," said Matthew Feinstein, Lux Research Analyst and lead author of the report. "Solyndra raised a billion all on its own, but these downstream start-ups will achieve what Solyndra could not – success," added Feinstein.

You’ve probably noticed this gradual shift, if you’re a regular CleanTechnica reader, as we’ve been writing more and more about solar leasing and solar installation innovations.

According to Lux Research, the “leading players in the downstream market” today are as follows:

  • SolarCity dominates among residential installers. In the crowded residential installer/developer market, SolarCity is a standout performer – but can ill afford to be complacent as it expands in the northeast U.S. Many companies are partnering with SunRun, adding muscle to SolarCity's biggest competitor. The Alteris-Real Goods Solar merger in December has added a stronger player to the market.
  • Commercial and utility-scale solar have few up-and-coming players. Tioga Energy and Enfinity lead the group of new large-scale developers. The acquisitions of Recurrent Energy, SunEdison, and Solar Power Partners led to concentration of large-scale development in the hands of larger companies or vertically-integrated suppliers First Solar and SunPower.
  • New entrants keep popping up on the back of venture dollars. A burst of entrepreneurial activity, driven by venture capital, is ensuring a steady stream of high-potential startups. In 2011, six solar installers were among Inc. Magazine's top 50 fastest growing companies in the U.S., including Greenspring Energy, re2g, SunDurance Energy, OnForce Solar, and FLS Energy.

These innovators were identified as “the high-potential innovators” in the field, as opposed to "me-too" companies.

Source: Lux Research | Image: screenshot of SolarCity video

Related posts:

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UK Government’s Solar Subsidy Appeal Rejected, Now Appealing to Supreme Court

Posted: 26 Jan 2012 07:51 AM PST

Solar panels in the UK set to increase 5x this year, 30x by 2015.

The Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC)  has lost its appeal against a High Court ruling that branded its plans to rush through cuts to solar subsidies as illegal,” the UK’s Business Green reported yesterday. “Three Court of Appeal judges this morning upheld the original decision that the government had acted unlawfully in proposing cuts to feed-in tariffs for solar installations completed after December 12 last year, on the grounds the consultation on the proposed changes to the scheme did not close until December 23.”

However, it didn’t take the government long to appeal this ruling and take the issue to the Supreme Court. ”The Court of Appeal has upheld the High Court ruling on FITs albeit on different grounds,” Energy and Climate Change Secretary Chris Huhne said. “We disagree and are seeking permission to appeal to the Supreme Court.”

If the appeal is lost, the solar feed-in tariff cuts will start on March 3.

Huhne’s rational for appealing the rulings and for the initial cuts:

“We want to maximise the number of installations that are possible within the available budget rather than use available money to pay a higher tariff to half the number of installations. Solar PV can have strong and vibrant future in UK and we want a lasting FITs scheme to support that future and jobs in the industry.”

However, many in the UK solar industry don’t see these government efforts (cutting the FiTs scheme) as helpful at all.

“They are trying to throw more cold water over the enthusiasm the public has for microgeneration and getting out of the clutches of the Big Six,” Daniel Green, chief executive of HomeSun, said. “To see them come out last week and say they want to deliver certainty for the sector and then pursue another appeal that will create further uncertainty just demonstrates that they are not really serious about this sector.”

We’ll keep you updated, of course!

UK solar panels via telex4

Related posts:

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EV Battery Prices Dropping

Posted: 26 Jan 2012 07:25 AM PST

EV battery prices are projected to drop tremendously by 2015. More info from sister site Gas2′s Andrew Meggison:

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Dumping Solar: The Case for CASE, Solar Growth and China’s Subsidies

Posted: 26 Jan 2012 02:07 AM PST

International trade tensions between the US and China have risen to become priorities at the national level recently, prompted by the October filing of anti-dumping and countervailing duty petitions by the Coalition of American Solar Manufacturing (CASM).

In his State of the Union address on Tuesday evening, Pres. Obama announced the creation of a Trade Enforcement Unit that will investigate illegal trade practices and subsidy programs by countries, notably China, which along with the US is legally bound by domestic laws enacted in compliance with World Trade Organization (WTO) agreements.

To better understand the narrow and broad issues associated with CASM’s petitions, Clean Technica has been running a series of articles based on an interview and correspondence with the lead lawyer for SolarWorld Industries America in the CASM case, Wiley, Rein LLP’s Tim Brightbill.

This article gives equal time to the opposition, which has been substantial. It’s based on an interview with Kevin Lapidus, senior vice president of legal and government affairs for MEMC SunEdison, and the Podesta Group’s Ed Rothschild. Lapidus also serves as a board member of the Coalition for Affordable Solar Energy, a coalition of US solar industry participants which has been conducting a government and public outreach campaign to discredit CASM’s claims and international trade petitions.

CASE’s opposition to CASM’s anti-dumping and countervailing duty petitions center on three key points, Lapidus explained: US solar industry jobs; US solar energy exports; and US renewable energy policy.

Solar Energy & US Jobs

Solar energy has rapidly emerged as an important engine of job creation in the US, a development that couldn’t have come at a better time, as job creation has been relatively slow and hard to come by since the near collapse of the banking system and severe recession of 2008-2009.

More than 100,000 Americans are now employed in the domestic solar energy industry, Lapidus noted. Industry employment increased “6.8% last year and it’s forecast to grow 24% in 2012,” he told Clean Technica. Solar “is a growing industry creating jobs, and the solar trade case is likely to undermine that job growth.”

The key to assuring continued good job creation is to decrease prices further, especially in light of the reduction, lapse or elimination of government subsidies and incentives that have fostered the growth of solar energy to this point, not only in the US, but worldwide, he continued. “[Solar energy] is a very price-elastic market. Other incentives are decreasing.”

The incentives the solar energy industry benefits from today have moved solar energy significantly closer to grid parity with fossil fuels, Lapidus noted, but they were enacted for the purpose of supporting a nascent industry and market. “Today’s incentives will be removed down the line. [Solar] will be a commercial market, and the progress that’s been made toward grid-parity has been what’s made the solar market boom,” he said.

The key to further progress, in turn, is to continue to reduce the price of solar (PV) cells, modules and panels, as well as manufacturing and balance-of-systems costs, Lapidus asserted. The imposition of countervailing duties on Chinese silicon solar PV imports will increase the cost of solar PV modules and panels, the result being that the overall cost of installing solar energy systems is going to increase. That’s going to result in the cancellation of many US projects currently scheduled for development. That, in turn, will effectively stifle job creation, he explained.

Furthermore, CASE finds fault in CASM’s argument that it’s seeking to shield the American solar energy industry, its employees and potential job creation in coming years. “If you look at jobs in the US solar industry, 52% are in installation. These are exactly the kinds of jobs we need in the US.”

Seventeen percent of jobs in the US solar industry are in sales and distribution, he continued, while 24% are in manufacturing. That’s manufacturing of all components of solar PV systems – inverters and other parts, as well as solar panels, he pointed out.

“When you really boil it down, CASM’s case accounts for 2-3% of the job market. They’re attempting to preserve their 2-3% of the job market. That’s not fair, it’s not right, and it’s not helpful to the large majority of the industry and its employees.”

Point 2: US Solar PV Exports

CASE’s second key point in discrediting CASM’s silicon solar PV trade petitions centers on broadening the perspective to include US exports of solar PV equipment and technology, as well as US imports of crystalline silicon Chinese cells, modules and panels. As reported here on Clean Technica, US solar industry exports totaled $5.6 billion in 2010.

Moreover, the US solar energy industry posted a trade surplus of between $300-$400 million with China in 2010, as well as a global trade surplus. “This case threatens exports as well,” Lapidus pointed out.

Then there’s the contagion effect to consider, he continued. “SolarWorld, which essentially is a German company, has started a trade war. India’s latching on to the issue and is threatening to investigate imports from the US and China.” The problem with trade wars, he concluded, is “that you don’t know the dispersion pattern of the dominoes; you just know it’s bad.”

Expanding on this, Lapidus asserts that SolarWorld’s leading the CASM trade petitions here in the US is the tip of the spear, that it’s just one element of a broader business strategy crafted by parent SolarWorld AG’s top executives in Germany to eliminate or at least seriously damage competition from Chinese manufacturers of silicon solar PV. “Now, they’re considering the same kind of case in the EU,” Lapidus pointed out.

Undermining US Clean Energy Policy

The third pillar supporting CASE’s opposition to the international silicon solar PV trade case against China is that it undermines US federal and state renewable energy policy.

“The Obama Administration and many US states have been strong supporters of solar and renewable energy,” Lapidus stated. “The problem is the cost of modules and solar energy will go up and undermine growth of the industry and the viability of solar energy. It will undermine a key policy goal of the US.”

There’s a twist of bitter irony to the situation, he added. “The irony here is that after years of criticism that solar was too expensive, we’re now driving to grid parity. We’re actually delivering on our social compact, and it’s all about the cost of solar. Thus, the trade case and SolarWorld’s actions are going to set the industry back years,” Lapidus asserted.

He noted that the solar industry is set to build $12 billion of US solar projects in 2012. “We need these things, and the industry is delivering. A time when we’re achieving policy, export and job goals is no time to undermine policies that are delivering on the social compact.”

An Alternative Means of Resolution?

The Podesta Group’s Ed Rothschild raised the point that the framework for the Commerce Dept. and ITC investigations and determinations are very narrowly defined within the context of domestically enacted international trade law in compliance with WTO rules. They’re focused “only on production [and export] of silicon solar cells, not the potential to undermine the industry and growth,” he said.

Picking up on this point, Lapidus said that CASE wants to “educate policymakers, the business community, the media and the public about the negative effects of this case and encourage a negotiated solution to this issue,” that includes industry participants as opposed a narrowly defined determination based on international trade law and the Commerce Dept.

Is there a precedent, or precedents, for a negotiated resolution? “Yes, there have been government-to-government resolutions,” Lapidus responded. Years ago, a trade dispute between Canada and the US to do with lumber imports lead to a “restructuring of the market that ensured the continued viability of parties on both sides.”

Though it hopes that countervailing duties are not imposed, Lapidus says that CASE isn’t prejudging the ITC-Commerce Dept. process. “We’re waiting for the decisions. This is the preliminary phase of the process, which will include the ITC revisiting the issue and the final Commerce Dept. determination, which will come at the end of the year.”

Unfortunately, he added, a certain amount of damage has and is being done. Whether or not it will be deep and lasting enough to derail a US solar energy industry that’s emerging as a key engine for future economic and job growth, time, along with the result of the ITC and Commerce Dept. investigations and ruling and ensuing actions by government and industry in China, the US and other key solar energy markets around the world will tell.

* Photo Blind Justice Atop Bath’s Guildhall, Freefoto.com

Related posts:

  1. Dumping Solar: CASM’s Case Against Chinese Manufacturers & Subsidies, Pt. II
  2. Dumping Solar: CASM’s Case Against Chinese Subsidies & Manufacturers, Pt. III
  3. US-China SolarTrade Dispute: The Case for CASM and US Manufacturing


Sweeping State of the Union Speech Creates Conflicting Energy Goals

Posted: 25 Jan 2012 03:02 PM PST

Last night, President Obama’s State of the Union speech featured a comprehensive energy plan that calls for increasing virtually all domestic sources of energy. His “all of the above” energy approach is a pragmatic step toward increasing America’s energy independence and gaining ground lost in the global clean energy economy toward “a future where we’re in control of our own energy and our security and prosperity aren’t so tied to unstable parts of the world.”

But Obama’s energy goals raised an important concern for me — could they, ironically, keep renewables from reaching their full potential?

Late last week I found out I had been picked to attend a State of the Union Tweetup at the White House. It was an exciting chance to watch the speech from within the Eisenhower Executive Office Building and ask questions of an administration panel afterward. Unfortunately, I wasn’t called on during the Q&A, so I’ll do my best to lay out the concerns I would have raised last night in this post.

Inside the White House tweetup

Increasing domestic fossil fuels

Obama began his speech by proposing broad increases in fossil fuel development. Citing U.S. oil production at its highest point in eight years with the lowest reliance on foreign oil since 1996, he directed his administration to open up more than 75 percent of the nation’s potential oil and gas offshore resources. This new development would come on top of several million acres that have been opened up to oil and gas exploration since 2009. “But with only two percent of the world’s oil reserves,” Obama said, “oil isn’t enough.”

That’s where America’s shale gas boom comes into play. Obama cited an estimate of 100 years’ domestic reserves and 600,000 new jobs from the natural gas industry by the end of this decade. The boom has been made possible by innovations in hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” but it has also raised concerns about water quality in Wyoming and Pennsylvania. He addressed this concern by saying he would “require all companies that drill for gas on public lands to disclose the chemicals they use.” Fracking chemical disclosure is a big step toward addressing the risks of fracking, but a larger concern remains with shifting toward a natural gas-dependent energy economy — supply.

The U.S. Energy Information Administration’s (EIA) Annual Energy Outlook 2012 slashed its estimate of unproved technically recoverable resources of U.S. shale gas to 482 trillion cubic feet from 2011′s estimate of 827 trillion cubic feet. This decline is largely due to a 66 percent drop in the estimated available resources of the East Coast Marcellus Shale play. The new estimate would still last decades at the current consumption rate of around 25 trillion cubic feet per year, but the conflict between EIA and Obama’s estimate does raise questions about the country’s long-term energy supply.

Supporting renewables

Obama quickly pivoted from federal support for stimulating natural gas innovation to a push for clean energy, saying “what’s true for natural gas is true for clean energy.” He credited his administration with positioning the U.S. to be the world’s leading manufacturer of high-tech batteries, doubling renewable energy use, and creating thousands of domestic jobs. Quoting a Michigan wind turbine worker, the president called renewables “the industry of the future” and pledged not to abandon efforts to boost clean energy.

Financial incentives play a large role in his vision. Obama called for both ending taxpayer subsidies to oil companies and passing clean energy tax credits to support renewables, as well as establishing a clean energy standard (CES) for the country. The CES effort stalled in Congress last year, but his call was quickly answered after the speech by Senator Jeff Bingaman (D-NM), who estimated releasing draft CES legislation within a few weeks.

Obama also called for passing clean energy tax credits, which seemed to be an indirect reference to the Production Tax Credit (PTC), which has created a wind power boom but threatens to stall the industry if it expires at the end of 2012. Obama also directed his administration to pursue clean energy projects on public land to power three million homes and announced the Department of Defense would make a clean energy purchase commitment equivalent to power 250,000 homes annually.

Conflicting goals?

But while Obama’s achievements in boosting renewables and plans to incentivize new clean energy investments are notable, they seem to be in direct conflict with expanded natural gas development. The glut of natural gas now on the U.S. energy market has driven wholesale electricity prices down at an incredible rate, recently to a 10-year low. This is good for consumers and the economy, but MIT researchers recently concluded its also a disincentive against renewables, because the electricity they generate is not price-competitive with natural gas–fired power.

Natural gas is an important part of a realistic plan to boost domestic energy independence. If developed safely, it also represents a clear environmental improvement over coal-fired electricity. But by pursuing an even greater boom and “all of the above” strategy, Obama may wind up dooming his plans for expanding renewables.

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Obama: Good? Bad? Stupid? Smart?

Posted: 25 Jan 2012 02:54 PM PST

obama

Obama delivering the 2012 State of the Union. White House Photo, Pete Souza.

We like to stick people in boxes. Well, categorizing where people stand and what we think of their stance is a part of human nature. It is something that helps us to act or not act, spend time with someone or not, trust someone or not. I think that we do this more than normal with presidents. We want to say that our president is either good or bad, want to have a stance, so that we can try to get him or her re-elected or taken out of office. So, we are eager to stick him or her into a box.

But, really, politics is complicated, and people are complicated, and sometimes we have to step beyond categorizations of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ (well, hopefully we do so more often than just sometimes).

Unfortunately, watching the 2012 State of the Union address last night was a little impractical for me, considering it was 3:00am here. But I watched it first-thing this morning. I then went on to read a number of editorials on the address. To be honest, I was quite surprised at the lack of depth and sophistication in much of this commentary. It all revolved around some surface issues or a superficial take on the messages of the speech.

I think, looking at the speech, you need to look at it from two different perspectives:

1) you need to pay attention to the fact that this is probably the best chance Obama has to have millions of members of the general public hear what he’s got to say, unedited;

2) you have to take a look at the actual policy implications of his statements.

So, looking at it from those perspectives, here’s my take on Obama’s 2012 SOTU address, and perhaps a bit on him as well:

Speaking to the Public

This is an election year, and this speech was an election-year speech. With that in mind, overall, I think Obama nailed the speech in this “speaking to the public” category (with one exception… below).

While some of the key things Obama focused on were not of my liking, he really took the opportunity in this speech to touch the hearts of ‘the other side’ and swing voters. Anyone who watched this and still thinks Obama is anti-oil (which I wish he actually were) has to reconsider. The following quote certainly didn’t make his own base happy, but it must have created quite some confusion or cognitive dissonance in the heads of oil and natural gas industry lovers, and perhaps brought some over to his side: “Over the last three years, we've opened millions of new acres for oil and gas exploration, and tonight, I'm directing my Administration to open more than 75 percent of our potential offshore oil and gas resources. Right now, American oil production is the highest that it's been in eight years. That's right – eight years.” Does this make me happy? No. Is it something that will score him political points? I lean towards saying ‘yes’. Similarly, anyone who saw him as anti-cars has to reconsider after watching the portion of the speech on the American auto-industry.

Oil & gas within reason is a phrase that doesn’t really make a lot of sense to greens. But it is an approach that helps to explain regulatory oil and gas policies. And this is what he drilled next. “…I'm requiring all companies that drill for gas on public lands to disclose the chemicals they use. America will develop this resource without putting the health and safety of our citizens at risk.” If we’re going to have natural gas drilling (which Obama is for), it seems he is intent on making sure it, at least, doesn’t harm our water supplies (beyond the harm it does through global warming).

Some perspective on the subsidies fossil fuel industries have received and the clean energy subsidies that are needed now is important in this country today, after FOX News and friends completely misrepresented the Solyndra story for months (and continues to do so).

Quotes on this:

“And by the way, it was public research dollars, over the course of thirty years, that helped develop the technologies to extract all this natural gas out of shale rock – reminding us that Government support is critical in helping businesses get new energy ideas off the ground.”

“What's true for natural gas is true for clean energy. In three years, our partnership with the private sector has already positioned America to be the world's leading manufacturer of high-tech batteries. Because of federal investments, renewable energy use has nearly doubled. And thousands of Americans have jobs because of it.”

True & true. (Then throws in nice case study.)

“Our experience with shale gas shows us that the payoffs on these public investments don't always come right away. Some technologies don't pan out; some companies fail. But I will not walk away from the promise of clean energy. I will not walk away from workers like Bryan. I will not cede the wind or solar or battery industry to China or Germany because we refuse to make the same commitment here. We have subsidized oil companies for a century. That's long enough. It's time to end the taxpayer giveaways to an industry that's rarely been more profitable, and double-down on a clean energy industry that's never been more promising. Pass clean energy tax credits and create these jobs.”

Great passion in this section.

“We can also spur energy innovation with new incentives. The differences in this chamber may be too deep right now to pass a comprehensive plan to fight climate change. But there's no reason why Congress shouldn't at least set a clean energy standard that creates a market for innovation. So far, you haven't acted. Well tonight, I will. I'm directing my Administration to allow the development of clean energy on enough public land to power three million homes. And I'm proud to announce that the Department of Defense, the world's largest consumer of energy, will make one of the largest commitments to clean energy in history – with the Navy purchasing enough capacity to power a quarter of a million homes a year.”

Pushing Congress to do some minimal work on clean energy, and also growing clean energy without a broken Congress (i.e. hostile opposition).

“Of course, the easiest way to save money is to waste less energy. So here's another proposal: Help manufacturers eliminate energy waste in their factories and give businesses incentives to upgrade their buildings. Their energy bills will be $100 billion lower over the next decade, and America will have less pollution, more manufacturing, and more jobs for construction workers who need them. Send me a bill that creates these jobs.”

Common sense. Frugality. Love it.

He spoke like a TV personality, not a college professor. While I prefer the style of a college professor, Obama’s much more impassioned (than normal) tone and energy in this speech may have put him on more likeable terms with the majority of the public, folks who are more affected by emotion than intellect. And I have to say, his passion was actually quite inspiring in parts (like the fossil fuels subsidy portion above).

He nailed the bonus-happy bankers who robbed the country, and the one-percenters who rob the U.S. with unethical tax breaks. (I think this was a pretty important and gutsy move and will touch anyone at all affected by the Occupy Wall Street movement,… and further pushes this cause, of course.)

He pointed out the obvious (but, to some, not so obvious) need for regulations in several points — when talking about how the financial industry screwed the U.S., and how he won’t let another Gulf oil spill like the BP spill occur again. He also pointed out how he is working to cut pointless regulation, and made an important distinction between the two (pointless and purposeful regulations) that I think a lot of people don’t get.

He nailed Republican obstructionism in Congress. On one hand, this puts pressure on Congress to work together a little better. Additionally, with an insanely unpopular Congress, it further separates him from that branch of government in voters’ eyes. Especially given the fact that the current Congress is a bit dominated by Republicans, this is all likely to give Obama a bump in the coming presidential election.

Brave speak regarding our position globally, versus other countries’. Obama certainly wasn’t making friends with other leading countries or ideological enemies in this speech. With so much attention put on ridiculous claims of him not being born in the U.S. and being anti-America, this kind of talk (again, some of which was not exactly something that I would condone) certainly hits the hearts of many of his non-traditional base.

On that traditional base of his, Obama obviously added many points and challenges we’d support. For the shortcomings we don’t support, I think he knows pretty darn well that his potential opponents in the GOP this year are so far off their rocker that he’s not going to lose many votes to them, or even to apathy, if he isn’t 100% tied to fighting for our wishes. Do I appreciate that? No. Do I think Obama fully ‘gets’ the most important issues of our day? No. But do I think this was all a smart political move? Yes, I do. (Again, the actual policy discussion, a short one, is below. More by Silvio in our next post.)

Obama is friends with American jobs and education, and you had to wear some pretty thick ear plugs to avoid hearing that.

Global warming…. Yes, this is the elephant in the room that everyone is blocking out, including Obama. It is the exception mentioned above. I don’t think his brief mutter of climate change is even worth discussing. The U.S. public is behind global warming action, and is increasingly realizing the threat it poses and the problems it’s already causing. But that awareness and support would really grow a ton if our president would make it a prime issue, and if he would force those of us unwilling to look at its threats to finally do so. Obama dropped the ball. And I think that was a grave mistake, politically and otherwise. With more awareness of global warming’s threats and costs, as well as the urgency of action, the policy moves Obama wants to make would get a lot more support. He missed the opportunity to point out the scientific consensus on this issue, or point out how the fossil fuel industry blocks greater awareness and progress.

Why did Obama drop the ball on this topic again? My thoughts are that 1) he thinks it’s too politically divisive (I don’t think it is and also think that leaving it off the table just makes it a political issue for longer); 2) he knows he isn’t meeting his initial goals or claims of change that he promised at the beginning of his presidency (hard to talk about a topic you’ve dropped); and/or 3) he really doesn’t get the urgency of this issue (perhaps the most concerning possibility).

He’s still on the ‘working together’ pitch. Well, not much can be done without working together. And I think he’s good to put the GOP in the hot seat on this one. Not a bad move in my opinion, politically.

Overall, political win. Big misstep: global warming’s invisibility.

Policy Implications

Well, the bottom line is, there are some pretty contradictory policy goals here (from a climate or environment perspective), and Obama’s tenure in office has been a bit mixed as well. We can’t know what rhetoric will actually be turned into policy in most cases, but Obama’s rhetoric last night certainly seemed to match up with his policy decisions up to now. Like it or not, looks like we’ve got more of the same in the coming year or 5. And what exactly would that be?

Clean energy & energy efficiency: Obama’s team has done more for clean energy and energy efficiency than probably any presidential team in U.S. history. That’s a strong suit that he continues to focus on. If it were up to him alone, I think it’s safe to say that we’d be the world’s clean energy leader (we’re far from it today).

Regulation: Obama’s team has been bringing back common-sense regulation the Bush administration dropped (in the energy industry and elsewhere). And it looks like it will continue doing so. But not always.

Fossil fuels: Obama’s happy, once again, to show how much he supports the oil and gas industry. And he really does. He’s done plenty for them, despite killing the Keystone XL for obvious, necessary reasons. Obama touts what was originally a Republican mantra of “all of the above” — and he supports it policy-wise. But “all of the above” equals less clean energy, less clean air, less clean water, and…

Global warming: Obviously, unrestrained burning of fossil fuels and a livable climate don’t go together. And Obama definitely seems to favor the former. That’s where it becomes mighty hard to consider Obama ‘smart’. He has dropped the ball on “stopping the seas from rising,” a big task he said would start doing from Day 1 in office. And, in the end, this may be the most defining matter of Obama’s presidency in history books written a few decades from now…

More SOTU pieces you might want to check out:

Related posts:

  1. Obama Announces New Recovery Act Smart Grid Funding — $3.4 Billion
  2. Obama's Executive Order Enforces Smart Energy
  3. Obama State of the Union Address 2011 [w/ VIDEO]


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