Obama outlines renewable energy goals

The takeaway from President Obama’s climate change plan [PDF] from a renewable energy perspective: He’ll push for more.

The plan’s headline-grabber was a promise to develop and enforce rules on CO2 emissions from power plants. That in itself could serve to make renewable energy more attractive. The president also set new goals for renewable energy development – on public lands and at public housing – and boosted the federal government’s goal for renewable energy use from 7.5 percent of its electricity demand to 20 percent by 2020.

screen grab from Whitehouse.gov

Even before Obama spoke at Georgetown University on Tuesday, the big renewable-energy industry groups — the American Wind Energy Association and the Solar Energy Industries Association — were signaling their support for the president’s initiatives.

But as “goals,” is there any certainty these things will happen? Won’t Congressional Republicans, disdainful of federal support for renewable energy development and always eager to defend fossil-fuel interests, throw up roadblocks?

Well, yes, there is the small matter of reality to consider. The president can’t wave a magic wand to build more wind farms or put more solar panels on more roofs, and please, give the fantasies of presidential persuasion a la LBJ a rest. With this Congress (and with a largely docile public), nothing Obama could do would result in sensible initiatives like a robust feed-in tariff program, a national renewable energy standard or a carbon tax.

You might, however, be surprised what a president can do. Hell, you might be surprised what a president has done. As the White House noted, in his first term, the United States “more than doubled generation of electricity from wind, solar, and geothermal sources,” and “since 2009, the Department of Interior has approved 25 utility-scale solar facilities, nine wind farms, and 11 geothermal plants, which will provide enough electricity to power 4.4 million homes.”

Much of this has happened because the Obama administration – not always to the delight of environmentalists – has pushed hard on permitting big projects on public lands. Obama said that push will continue; a goal of 10 gigagwatts of renewables on public lands having been met, Interior is now directed to “permit an additional 10 gigawatts by 2020.”

Obama also set a goal of reaching 100 megawatts of installed renewable energy capacity on federally subsidized housing; this is something that could happen without Congress opening up the purse-strings, since new financing models for solar, for instance, require no upfront money and yield lower energy bills.

The president reiterated his support for the renewable fuel standard, a key tool in promoting biofuels (the RFS has been under attack not just from the oil industry, but from greens who see it as ineffective on climate change and with undesired consequences for food production and land use). He promised to promote advanced batteries, grid improvements that could make renewables easier to integrate, fuel cells and expansion of hydropower at some existing dams.

Obama also said the administration will use loan guarantee authority available under the Section 1703 program (the same program used to support many solar and wind projects) to “support investments in innovative technologies that can cost-effectively meet financial and policy goals, including the avoidance, reduction, or sequestration of anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases.” This drew a rebuke from the progressive advocacy group Public Citizen, whose Tyler Slocum called the move a “taxpayer boondoggle waiting to happen.”

Pete Danko, EarthTechling