Is Obama an energy realist?

We saw an interesting evolution of Barack Obama as an energy president on display earlier this week in his fifth official State of the Union address. You might say the president got real.

He was more emphatic than ever about the reality of climate change. He let his affection for natural gas blossom into a full-fledged love affair. And he was less ambitious when it came to sweeping new initiatives to drive renewable energy development – Congress has him by the purse strings there – but still he said enough to signal that he will use his powers to keep the ball rolling on that front.

Screen grab from White House webcast of the State of the Union address.

In his early SOTUs, Obama would urge action on climate change, but he’d also feel compelled to make the case that climate change is a real thing. In 2010, the message was, “I know that there are those who disagree with the overwhelming scientific evidence on climate change.  But here’s the thing – even if you doubt the evidence, providing incentives for energy-efficiency and clean energy are the right thing to do for our future – because the nation that leads the clean energy economy will be the nation that leads the global economy.”

None of that this year: “The debate is settled,” Obama declared. “Climate change is a fact.”

To tackle it, Obama embraced natural gas more fully than ever and, reflecting the view of his new Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, called it “the bridge fuel that can power our economy with less of the carbon pollution that causes climate change.” The president said he wanted to use the U.S. natural gas boom (cousin of the U.S. oil boom, which the president also likes) to fuel new factories and even cars.

Mind you, there was a wee peremptory caveat to the natural gas endorsement: “If extracted safely,” Obama said, which might be taken as an acknowledgement that there needs to be a forceful federal regulatory role, but so far, the administration has stepped very lightly when it comes to fracking.

Wind power, which has grown to become a significant contributor to the grid in a few states at least since Obama took office, didn’t get a mention last night, although the American Wind Energy Association wanted to think the president was talking about them and their quest for another extension of the production tax credit when he called for “a smarter tax policy that stops giving $4 billion a year to fossil fuel industries that don’t need it so we can invest more in fuels of the future that do.”

That remark followed the president’s shout-out to solar: “Every four minutes another American home or business goes solar, every panel pounded into place by a worker whose job can’t be outsourced,” he said. But that’s all it was – a shout-out. There was no call for anything new to be done, which makes sense. More tax spending to encourage adoption is out of reach. Plus, the administration has been able to do quite a bit to encourage solar development with the tools it has, particularly big solar, and there’s every evidence to suggest it will continue to do so. Meanwhile, the marketplace has been driving down the cost on its own.

So a shout-out was what solar got, and solar, being real itself, was fine with that.

“Fresh off a record-breaking year, America’s solar energy industry is looking forward to another great year in 2014 – thanks, in part, to President Obama’s continued leadership and the smart public policies which are making solar more affordable than ever,” the Solar Energy Industries Association’s Rhone Resch said in a post-SOTU statement.

* Pete Danko, EarthTechling