Running for First in the Clean-Energy Race

State of the Union 2010

The State of the Union showcased Obama's leadership on energy and highlighted the need for bipartisan cooperation in Congress to pass energy legislation, write Daniel J. Weiss and Susan Lyon.

President Barack Obama delivers his State of the Union address on Wednesday, January 27, 2010. (AP/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
President Barack Obama delivers his State of the Union address on Wednesday, January 27, 2010. (AP/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

President Barack Obama reiterated in his State of the Union address last night his vision to get America running on clean energy. “Providing incentives for energy efficiency and clean energy are the right thing to do for our future,” he said, “because the nation that leads the clean energy economy will be the nation that leads the global economy. And America must be that nation.”

He used the annual address to advocate for a clean-energy investment agenda that would create jobs and reduce carbon pollution. The Obama administration’s efforts began on January 20, 2009, and it has already produced benefits. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which became law on February 17, 2009, includes $70 billion for clean-energy investments and will create nearly 900,000 new clean-energy jobs. One million low-income homes will be weatherized because of ARRA, and wind, solar, and other renewable electricity generation will double by 2012. ARRA also included $20 billion in clean-energy tax cuts for wind and solar power investments and the purchase of ultraefficient cars.

President Obama made it clear that more is needed for short-term recovery and long-term economic growth. He proposed to “put more Americans to work building clean-energy facilities—and give rebates to Americans who make their homes more energy efficient, which supports clean-energy jobs.” The latter program would promptly create jobs in retail sales and construction. And it could be a down payment for a program to retrofit 50 million buildings—40 percent of all buildings—by 2020. Accomplishing this larger goal would create 625,000 jobs and save the typical family $300 to $1200 in lower electricity bills.

The president also urged the Senate to act quickly to pass comprehensive, bipartisan clean-energy and climate legislation. He told the nation that the United States needs “a comprehensive energy and climate bill with incentives that will finally make clean energy the profitable kind of energy in America.”

Obama also urged the Senate to pass strong bipartisan energy and climate legislation to increase national security and bolster U.S. competitiveness overseas, saying, “Washington has been telling us to wait for decades, even as the problems have grown worse. Meanwhile, China’s not waiting to revamp its economy. Germany’s not waiting. India’s not waiting. These nations aren’t standing still. These nations aren’t playing for second place.”

China, Germany, and other nations are, indeed, racing ahead of us to develop and produce the clean-energy technologies of the future. China is now a world leader in solar, wind, electric cars, and high-speed rail technologies. And China is the leading producer of solar photovoltaic cells even though the technology was invented and perfected in the United States. The U.S. market share of PV cell production dropped from 45 percent to under 10 percent between 1995 and 2005. But the investments sparked by ARRA, combined with legislation to reduce carbon pollution, will help the United States keep up this race.

America’s dependence on foreign oil hurts our economy, helps our enemies, and puts our security at risk. A recent CAP analysis found that one in five barrels of oil consumed in the United States come from nations that are “dangerous or unstable,” according to the U.S. State Department. It is essential that we invest in clean-energy technologies and reduce global warming pollution to lower American consumption of foreign oil. As conservative Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) recently noted, “The idea of not pricing carbon, in my view, means you’re not serious about energy independence. The odd thing is you’ll never have energy independence until you clean up the air, and you’ll never clean up the air until you price carbon.”

Clean-energy reform has united many Democrats and some Republicans, progressives and conservatives, blue states and red states. A poll released last week by Republican pollster Frank Luntz found that 43 percent of Republicans “definitely” or “probably” “believe climate change is caused at least in part by humans.” Another poll out last week by Joel Benenson, President Obama’s 2008 pollster, found that 58 percent of likely 2010 voters support comprehensive global warming legislation as well. Respondents also said they were much more likely to vote for senators who supported such legislation and more likely to oppose those that do not. These two polls and others are evidence that Americans across the political spectrum want clean-energy and global warming legislation.

New Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell delivered the Republican response to the State of the Union and urged adoption of Bush-Cheney-Palin energy policies. His energy plan would primarily rely on more offshore oil drilling and higher oil company profits, while opposing reductions in global warming pollution. Following big oil’s agenda by pursuing offshore oil drilling is no panacea for our oil dependence. The Department of Energy determined that even drilling for oil and gas in the newly opened Outer Continental Shelf and the expansion of shale gas production would still require liquid fuel imports of 45 percent in 2035. The most cost-effective solution is to reduce demand for oil by making cars and trucks much more fuel efficient, and to transition to cleaner nonoil fuels, including electricity, natural gas, and advanced clean bio fuels.

The State of the Union showcased President Obama’s leadership and the need for moderate senators of both parties to cooperate to adopt comprehensive clean-energy and global warming legislation that would create jobs, increase energy security, cut pollution, and increase economic competitiveness.

Daniel J. Weiss is a Senior Fellow and Director of Climate Strategy and Susan Lyon is a Special Assistant for Energy Policy at American Progress.

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Daniel J. Weiss

Senior Fellow