Been There, Done That—Is Obama Out of Ideas to Promote Clean Energy?

The U.S. is not even in the top 10 countries in clean energy investment growth over the last five years.

President Barack Obama delivers remarks on clean energy as he visits the Copper Mountain Solar Project in Boulder City, Nevada on March 21, 2012. (Photo: Jason Reed/Reuters)

Jan 24, 2013· 2 MIN READ
Stephen Lacey is a Senior Editor at Greentech Media, where he reports on the business of cleantech. He was formerly Deputy Editor of Climate Progress. He writes daily on clean energy policy, technologies, and finance.

During his inauguration day speech this week, President Obama reaffirmed his commitment to clean energy.

“The path towards sustainable energy sources will be long and sometimes difficult. But America cannot resist this transition; we must lead it,” Obama said. “We cannot cede to other nations the technology that will power new jobs and new industries—we must claim its promise.”

We need to level the playing field with fossil fuels, establish long-term signals for investors, and help foster development of new technologies coming out of labs and universities.

The words were similar to previous remarks the President has made. But paired with his description of the “overwhelming judgment of science” on climate change during an inauguration speech the whole nation was watching, Obama’s words packed a greater punch than usual.

So will the next four years of action pack the same punch?

Now that a second term is officially underway, clean-energy advocates are dusting off their old plans, creating new ones, and trying to harness the White House’s support for the industry to ensure continued growth.

And the growth in 2012 was solid—even during a turbulent political year that created so many uncertainties in the market. Last year, installation of wind energy outpaced natural gas; solar-photovoltaic electricity generation surpassed industrial geothermal generation; and renewable energy represented half of all generation capacity added. In addition, the fuel efficiency of America’s automobile fleet has improved 18 percent over 2007 levels.

On the executive level, the President has signaled that his team will do everything it can to keep the growth going. From automobile fuel standards to executive orders on renewable energy and efficiency, Obama has done more than any other American leader in history to set the stage for a clean energy transition.

But these executive actions can only go so far. The real problem over the next four years is Congress, not the President’s willingness to act.

According to a new report from the Pew Charitable Trusts, America’s inability to get a comprehensive clean-energy strategy passed by Congress is having a real impact. The U.S. is not even within the top ten countries in investment growth over the last five years. In addition, the country is only ranked tenth in the world for installed renewable energy capacity since 2006. With revenues from renewable energy expected to grow from $200 billion last year to $327 billion in 2018, the U.S. must enact better policies to capture a bigger market share.

The Pew report outlined the top policies that Congress should implement over the coming four years to build off what the Obama Administration has done:

- Establish a national clean energy target to guide deployment and investment for the long term.

- Significantly increase investment in energy research and development.

- Enact a multiyear but time-limited extension of tax credits for clean energy sources.

- Level the playing field across the energy sector by evaluating barriers to competition.

- Renew incentives for domestic clean energy manufacturing.

- Create a strategy to expand markets for clean energy goods and services abroad.

There’s nothing really new here in Pew’s recommendations. This is the song the clean-energy business community has been singing for many years. But they’re a reminder that we still lack some very basic policies to ensure our leadership in the world of clean energy: We need to level the playing field with fossil fuels, establish long-term signals for investors, and help foster development of new technologies coming out of labs and universities.

Unfortunately, there are absolutely no signals coming out of Washington that Congress is ready to implement any of these. We may get some movement on small tax issues over the next year or two, but the impetus for action is almost nonexistent—mostly among so-called right-wing extremists who see clean energy as an expensive luxury, not as an environmental and economic necessity.

The President has outlined a clear vision for why clean energy is an important part of the country’s future. And it’s a vision that Americans overwhelmingly support. Now it’s up to Congress—the body that is supposed to directly represent citizens—to help implement that vision in Obama’s next term.