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Jan 262011

By Barbara Kessler
Green Right Now

Climate action is so far off the agenda in Washington it may as well be floating on an island of melting sea ice. With dozens of lawmakers expressing doubts about whether climate change is real or is some zany idea cooked up by 10,000 scientists, matters like cap-and-trade are in the deep freeze. Even environmentalists now speak about amorphous “pollution” instead of those off-putting greenhouse gases.

Obama describes a green vision for America.

Thankfully, though, clean energy, electric cars and high-speed rail – the nuts-and-bolts improvements that could help America build muscle in manufacturing and technology sectors, salvage its remaining natural spaces and reduce “pollution” (wink, wink) — remain firmly on the table.

At least that’s where the president has placed them.

In what may have been his most pointedly green national speech, President Barak Obama called out ambitious, explicit green energy goals in last night’s State of the Union Address. Obama wants a transformed America to be:

  • The first nation to put 1 million electric cars on the ground
  • Home to a high-speed rail network that will be within reach of 80 percent of Americans within the next 25 years
  • A leader in clean energy, with 80 percent of our electricity coming from “clean  sources” by 2035.

That last one’s a whopper coming from a country whose previous clean energy targets have been vague or underwhelming. But there’s a squish factor here. Obama defined “clean energy” broadly, as coming from wind, solar, nuclear, natural gas and even controversial “clean coal” technology. The latter is in its infancy (a plant is under construction in Texas) and many believe it will prove to be too expensive and not-so-clean after all.

Still, the president gave a direct shout out to renewables — wind, solar, geothermal — with a promise to increase federal funding (research and investment) for these by 85 percent; without driving up the deficit because the money could be found by ending $4 billion in annual federal subsidies to mature fossil fuel industries.

The fight on that one should be positively flammable, given the oil industries’ mega-lobby in Washington.

But that will come later. Let’s return, for now, to President Obama’s comforting, Kennedy-esque vision for a nation that needs to get its groove back.

For environmentalists, and green-minded citizens, this was a giant lollipop, with natural coloring and no artificial additives.

Obama was cuing us to think big, and look ahead. That’s why he mentioned the space program, the national highway system, Google and Facebook. This was our president at his oratorical best, taking us by the shoulders, albeit gently, and trying to shake us out of our stupor; saying he’ll make breakfast and cut Big Oil subsidies if we’ll just get moving again.

It’s no surprise that all of these green energy goals are good potential candidates for bipartisan support (they’ll be opposed by cost-cutters and Obama detractors, of course, but they are part of global movements that are advancing with or without U.S. participation). And they are all capable of creating jobs … jobs … jobs.

It’s become clear that our jobless recovery could be the wave of the future, a long-term new normal instead of an economic lag effect, if we don’t retrain, retool and get or keep our foothold in fast-growing green industries, like electric car and solar and wind power production.

Electric cars give Detroit something to gnaw on and a chance to reclaim some former glory. The field is still new. GM and Ford are both putting forward respectable candidates. GM’s Volt is too expensive, but it’s sporty and may appeal to upper-income early adopters.  Ford is due out late this year with a more practical, likely less expensive electric Focus.

Foreign makers of electric vehicles also are putting Americans to work, making electric cars, such as Finland’s  Think, soon to be made in  Indiana, and the Nissan Leaf, rolling off the lines in Tennessee. Americans also are designing and building lithium batteries and charging equipment.

Naysayers will point out that Americans drive 250 million cars, making 1 million electrics look like a niche market. But all new technologies must start somewhere. At one time, there were a handful of DVD players, personal computers, phonographs.

Green energy is similarly positioned. It’s a sliver of the pie at the moment. But it is proving itself with large scale commercial solar projects underway in the desert Southwest that will power millions of homes in California, Arizona and New Mexico. Solar rooftop panels also got a lot more affordable in the last two years.

Wind power is primed to help many regions from the windswept plains of North Dakota to coastal Rhode Island and Delaware, where big new offshore projects could power some of our largest cities. China moved ahead of the U.S. in wind production for the first time this past year. But a redoubling of effort could help keep wind manufacturing and production robust in the U.S.

Wind, which uses no water and produces no carbon emissions, and solar power, which requires water in some mutations but draws power from the penultimate source, are the cleanest ways of producing energy. They’re renewable, completely local, and can work to complement each other on the grid, with wind being strongest at night (a good time to charge electric cars) and solar strongest at the top of the day into the peak demand hours.

Why wouldn’t we want to increase our energy security by pushing for more?

In the president’s vision, high-speed rail works as an adhesive for the new clean economy, drawing cities closer together and connecting rural areas. High-speed rail can reduce auto congestion (saving oil) and air pollution. Airlines might fight it, but they cannot argue with its greener profile. Rail and air travel could co-exist.

Republicans in Congress have already proposed billions in federal cuts for Amtrak and high speed rail. A fight over this is a given. But at least there will be a debate.

Perhaps those who would cut U.S. investment in passenger rail, see it as unattainable, or a luxury. But they cannot deny it would create jobs and an affordable, green transit option for the masses.

In December, the newly elected governors of Wisconsin and Ohio, rejected federal money for high speed rail projects. They preferred to make a political point by turning down stimulus money, rather than keeping these job-creating projects on track.

But what these two men may not realize is that high speed rail is a proven technology in Spain, Germany, Japan and many other countries. Even Turkey is developing a high speed rail system.

High speed rail is expanding travel options for people of all means and improving business networks, all over the world. Without it, Americans could wind up stuck behind other modernized nations, not to mention stuck on congested roadways, as deeply indentured to foreign oil as ever.

If lawmakers really care about keeping America free and moving forward, they should carefully consider shifting federal dollars toward renewable energy and away from fossil fuels, and expanding  mass transit, including high speed rail.

This slate of action that Obama has outlined could  unshackle us from pollution, the destruction of land and water in pursuit of coal, and our credit debt to the Middle East.

What a sweet triple win it could be: Jobs, clean air and water, energy security.

Let’s hope those in Congress take the long view when it’s time to craft plans for a new green economy.

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