The State of the Union may be strong, but the state of America’s energy policy is less clear

Posted by Don Fullerton on Jan 28, 2011

Filed Under (Environmental Policy, U.S. Fiscal Policy)

On Tuesday night, President Obama gave the State of the Union (SOTU) Address (transcript) before a joint session of Congress.  The speech drew upon imagery from the Cold War past in order to spur action regarding America’s energy policy.  “This is our generation’s Sputnik moment,” the President declared, and thus he will send a budget to Congress that invests “especially [in] clean energy technology, an investment that will strengthen our security, protect our planet, and create countless new jobs for our people.”  To deal with this “Sputnik moment”, the President set forth two goals: (1) become the first country to have a million electric vehicles on the road by 2015; and (2) get 80% of America’s energy from clean sources by 2035. 

(Not quite as inspiring as President Kennedy’s urging on May 21, 1961 that “this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before the decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth.”  On July 20, 1969, Apollo 11 landed on the Moon and Neil Armstrong took his first step on the lunar surface.)

I have three issues with the President’s approach.  First, the wording of the goals in the SOTU Address needs to be parsed carefully in order to understand their meaning or lack of meaning.  For instance, does “electric vehicles” mean all-electric vehicles or do hybrids count towards that goal?  Similarly, what is the definition of “clean sources”?  Fortunately, in this case we have an answer later in the Address.  As the President admits, “Some folks want wind and solar.  Others want nuclear, clean coal and natural gas.  To meet this goal, we will need them all.”  However, ambiguity still exists because clean coal and natural gas technologies can be deployed with or without carbon capture and sequestration technologies.

Second, the President did not offer details about HOW to achieve these goals.  The Address includes references to investments in clean energy technology, but it specifies neither investment level nor investment horizon required to meet the stated goals.  He did not say, for example, $10 billion annually for 10 years.  If clean energy is really a priority for the President, and given concerns about the fiscal deficit, then clarity about the needed investment level would be helpful so that other programs can be identified for cuts in order to balance the budget.  Also, the President said that “clean energy breakthroughs will only translate into clean energy jobs if businesses know there will be a market for what they’re selling.”  I agree.  However, an efficient, well functioning market requires a price signal.  This brings me to my last point.

Third, the President did not directly address environmental policy when setting his goals.  If the President really means “low-carbon” or “no carbon” when he says “clean”, then the absence of a carbon policy in the Address becomes conspicuous.  Specifically, the President did not indicate if he would again push for a cap-and-trade bill.  Given the composition of the new Congress, a cap-and-trade bill or any other piece of legislation that puts either an explicit or implicit price on carbon emission seems politically infeasible.  To have a market for these clean energy technologies, where is the price signal going to come from?  

In their forthcoming book called “Accelerating Energy Innovation: Insights from Multiple Sectors”, Rebecca Henderson and Richard G. Newell look at lessons from the histories of innovation in other industries and implications for the energy industry.   The introduction says: “Taken together the histories point to three key factors as critical to accelerating innovation: (1) well funded, carefully managed public research that is tightly linked to the private sector; (2) rapidly growing demand; and (3) antitrust, intellectual property and standards policies that together promote vigorous competition and the entry of new firms.”

How many people would ‘demand’ electric vehicles at a high price, just out of the goodness of their hearts?  Or would that demand depend on the existence of a policy that raises the price of burning fossil fuels?

The President noted that when Sputnik was launched, NASA did not exist.  Yet, the Department of Energy has existed for many years, and America’s energy policy is still unclear and uncertain.