Opinion: Obama re-election keeps clean energy hope alive

Trying to figure out exactly what Barack Obama’s victory in Tuesday’s election will mean for the clean energy movement in the United States is a bit of a fool’s errand on two counts.

We have a good idea of what the president would like to do, but we don’t know what Congress will allow him to do – and we don’t really know what Mitt Romney, one of the ideologically slipperiest characters ever to try to slither into the White House, would actually have done if he had won.

My own thought was that Romney might have heeded the polls that show widespread support for clean energy and been a bit more green-friendly than he was as a candidate, but who knows, perhaps he would have channeled the Wall Street Journal editorialists, disassembled the thousands of wind turbines that now dot the fruited plain and used the scrap metal to build oil pipelines.

President Obama visits the Siemens turbine plant in Fort Madison, Iowa, in 2010. (image via Siemens)

One thing I’m willing to wager a month’s salary on – true, a paltry sum, but still – is that a second-term Obama will be more aggressive in drawing a link between the need for more clean energy and the threat of climate change. That blasted, otherworldy Hurricane Sandy, which caused so much death, destruction and heartache, had one blessing: It gave many Americans unable to comprehend what a warming planet might mean a vivid new way to imagine the future, a future that is damn scary.

At the same time, in responding to the disaster, the president and New Jersey’s Republican governor, Chris Christie, demonstrated the political points that can be won through cooperation in the face of a challenge. Will fellow politicians learn from the episode? Smart ones will.

Obama will probably still lean first on the economic argument – green jobs and all that – to push for government action to bring us more clean energy, but buttressing that with even subtle mentions of Sandy could give a needed sense of urgency to his case.

He’ll surely run into Congressional opposition in everything he does, although a breakthrough on the soon-to-expire production tax credit for wind seems a good possibility, given the support it has from Republicans in wind states like Iowa and Colorado.

The president won’t be able to fund clean energy with the big stimulus package that he had early in his first term, and that will present a challenge, but the administration has shown that even in our non-parliamentary system, and facing a vast cabal of energy ignoramuses in the House of Representatives and Mitch McConnell’s obstruction bordering on treason in the Senate, a determined executive can still get some stuff done.

Just last month, the administration finalized a plan that opens up 285,000 acres in 17 zones in six Western states for streamlined utility-scale solar power development. Projects in the zones could produce some 23,700 megawatts of electricity, enough to power around 7 million American homes.

Remember, too, that pre-Obama, no big solar energy projects had been permitted on public lands. But according to the Interior Department, under Obama 33 renewable energy projects have been approved for construction on or involving public lands, including 18 solar plants, seven wind farms and eight geothermal plants. In May, the first of those big projects – Enbridge Silver State North, a 50-megawatt solar PV array 40 miles south of Las Vegas – went online. The administration is also using its regulatory power to try to get the U.S. off the dime on offshore wind.

Then there’s the president’s goal of 1 million electric vehicles on the road by 2015.

It’s actually not the most important commitment the president has made on the transportation front – aiming to get fuel efficiency standards to 55 mpg by 2025 is huge – and reaching the goal seems increasingly unlikely. Still, the president’s reelection means the EV goal at least has a pulse, and that with any luck progress can continue – which, come to think of it, could sum up our best hopes for the entire clean energy agenda for the next four years.

Pete Danko, EarthTechling