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Obama's energy boost

Jim Watson / AFP - Getty Images file
President Obama and Vice President Joe Biden inspect a solar array on the roof

of the Denver Museum of Nature and Science during a Feb. 17 appearance.

When a politician starts talking about renewable energy and carbon caps, pollster Stan Greenberg usually sees what he calls a "glazing-over" moment - as in voters' eyes glazing over with disinterest. But when President Obama talked about how America had to take back the lead in energy innovation, that moment didn't come.

Instead, Democrats as well as Republicans picked up on Obama's call for energy independence, and revved up the debate on the morning after.

Energy was the first of three top priorities Obama put forward on Tuesday during his first presidential address to Congress, coming before health care and education. The initiatives he cited have been mentioned previously, but what was new this time was that he cast those initiatives as a national crusade, before a national audience.

"I do not accept a future where the jobs and industries of tomorrow take root beyond our borders - and I know you don't, either," Obama said. "It is time for America to lead again."

Greenberg said that sentiment resonated strongly among Republicans as well as Democrats, based on a viewer-dial poll conducted with a focus group of 50 voters in Las Vegas. Such polls are far from precise: The survey participants merely turn dials during the speech to reflect how positive or negative they feel about what the speaker is saying. But the lines on the chart do provide an instant read of how key phrases are received.

"There was a very strong response to energy independence, and acting on it," Greenberg told me during a post-address teleconference. "We've seen this before, earlier in the campaign and during the debates, but it's clearly very strong."

The surprising thing for Greenberg was that it stayed strong even when Obama dived into the details.

"I watched to see when he talked about renewable energy and carbon caps ... the lines did not go down," he said. "They were already fairly high on energy stuff, but they did not go down. Usually that stuff produces glazing over."

Here's a rundown on some of that stuff from the speech, with free reality checks included:

Obama: "We know the country that harnesses the power of clean, renewable energy will lead the 21st century. And yet, it is China that has launched the largest effort in history to make their economy energy-efficient."

China hasn't exactly been the poster child for clean energy over the past two decades - its rapid economic climb led to serious pollution problems. But in the past couple of years the Chinese have been pressing on with an energy-efficiency campaign that is projected to result in hundreds of billions of dollars' worth of construction upgrades by 2020. In the automotive sector, China has been setting progressively higher standards for auto fuel economy and pursuing a years-long hybrid-electric vehicle development plan. Will your next electric car come from Shenzhen, or Detroit? 

Obama: "We invented solar technology, but we've fallen behind countries like Germany and Japan in producing it."

Germany's renewable-energy subsidy program has created the world's largest market for solar cells, while the Japanese government's incentive program turned that country into a global solar powerhouse. (However, it lost ground to Germany when the incentives were discontinued.)

Obama: "New plug-in hybrids roll off our assembly lines, but they will run on batteries made in Korea." 

Last month, GM said the all-electric Chevy Volt will use lithium-ion battery cells that are made by LG Chem in Korea and then shipped to Michigan for assembly into battery packs. LG was chosen because no U.S. supplier could provide the flat cells in the volumes needed.

Obama: "Thanks to our recovery plan, we will double this nation's supply of renewable energy in the next three years."

Doubling renewable energy by 2012 is, shall we say, a stretch goal. Statistics from the Department of Energy indicate that roughly 10 percent of the nation's energy came from renewable sources last year, and the most commonly cited target is to get that figure up to 25 percent by 2025.

The renewable goal might be achieved sooner if utilities get on board with plans to generate more power from renewable resources - perhaps in response to federally mandated standards. Legislation on that issue could surface sometime in the next couple of months, and the idea is already sparking criticism.

Obama: "We will soon lay down thousands of miles of power lines that can carry new energy to cities and towns across this country. And we will put Americans to work making our homes and buildings more efficient so that we can save billions of dollars on our energy bills."

The recently approved stimulus package provides tens of billions of dollars to boost green infrastructure and upgrade the nation's electricity grid. Just this week, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., signaled that he would introduce legislation to streamline the process for getting long-distance power lines built - an idea that doesn't sit too well with state regulators. (To get a sense of what Obama has in mind, check out this briefing paper from the Center for American Progress, where a lot of the president's big ideas come from.)

Obama: "But to truly transform our economy, protect our security, and save our planet from the ravages of climate change, we need to ultimately make clean, renewable energy the profitable kind of energy. So I ask this Congress to send me legislation that places a market-based cap on carbon pollution and drives the production of more renewable energy in America. That’s what we need."

A cap-and-trade system for regulating carbon dioxide emissions will probably be the biggest and trickiest job on Obama's energy agenda. The Heritage Foundation calls this "the costliest part of a costly speech." But others argue that even power producers will find a carbon-emission market preferable to out-and-out federal regulation of carbon dioxide emissions. Can the White House pull it off? Over at The Intersection, Chris Mooney predicts that the cap-and-trade bill is going to spark "a hell of a battle."  

Obama: "And to support that innovation, we will invest $15 billion a year to develop technologies like wind power and solar power; advanced biofuels, clean coal, and more fuel-efficient cars and trucks built right here in America."

The stimulus package sets aside billions of dollars for research at the Department of Energy, including $400 million to set up a new DARPA-style agency. Going forward, the annual $15 billion for energy research is expected to come out of the money generated by the cap-and-trade system, so there's some uncertainty to that figure. Moreover, some observers say that $15 billion a year just isn't enough to do what needs to be done in the field, and that $50 billion a year would be closer to the mark.

The Republican response, delivered by Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal just after Obama's speech, touched on conservation and renewable energy. Jindal, who has been touted as a prospect for the 2012 presidential campaign, also addressed a couple of energy sources that Obama didn't mention directly. Unless something was done to change the energy equation, Jindal said, the nation could see the return of last year's high fuel prices.

Jindal: "To stop that from happening, we need to increase conservation, increase energy efficiency, increase the use of alternative and renewable fuels, increase our use of nuclear power, and increase drilling for oil and gas here at home."

During last year's campaign, Obama said that nuclear power would have to be part of the solution to the nation's energy woes, and he also eased up on his resistance to offshore drilling. This month, the Interior Department put a hold on a draft plan for expanding offshore drilling - and it's clear that the White House would prefer to shift the focus from fossil-fuel exploration to renewable alternatives such as wind and wave energy.

Jindal also went after some of the provisions in the stimulus package.

Jindal: "While some of the projects in the bill make sense, their legislation is larded with wasteful spending. It includes $300 million to buy new cars for the government, $8 billion for high-speed rail projects, such as a 'magnetic levitation' line from Las Vegas to Disneyland, and $140 million for something called 'volcano monitoring.' Instead of monitoring volcanoes, what Congress should be monitoring is the eruption of spending in Washington, D.C. "

The $300 million has gotten a bad rap from critics who say the money would go to buy "green golf carts." Actually, the provision calls for replacing cars in federal fleets with more fuel-efficient vehicles. Those could include hybrids and plug-ins as well as neighborhood electric vehicles, or NEVs. Yes, some of these NEVs look like golf carts, but they're not for sissies: Just last month, the U.S. Army took delivery of its first NEVs. They're expected to save millions of dollars in fuel costs.

The $8 billion is aimed at giving a boost to the nation's rail infrastructure, which is currently in sad shape. Yes, the Anaheim-to-Vegas run is one of the projects that has been in the works for years, but many other rail routes will be considered in the competition for funding - including, perhaps, a route that goes through Jindal's home state. Unless he wants to pass up that money, too.

The most laughable part of Jindal's statement was the reference to "something called 'volcano monitoring.'" As someone who covered Mount St. Helens' eruption and its aftermath, I guess I must know a little bit more about volcano monitoring than Jindal does - including the fact that the nation's seismic networks need an upgrade.

You don't need to take my word for it, though: We have a whole story that goes into what that $140 million will do. On the scientific silliness scale, Jindal's comments rank right up there with John McCain's planetarium problem and Sarah Palin's fruit-fly kerfluffle.

Here are a few more eruptions from the scientific blogosphere:

Update for 7 p.m. ET: Obama also committed a tech gaffe on Tuesday night when he said he was committed to the goal of a retooled, re-imagined auto industry that can compete and win. "Millions of jobs depend on it," he said. "Scores of communities depend on it. And I believe the nation that invented the automobile cannot walk away from it."

That's probably true - but in this case, the nation we're talking about is Germany, not the United States. Germany's Karl Benz is credited with inventing the automobile as we know it today, in around 1885. Here are a few of the truth-squad tales: