Published February 16, 2011
When President Obama made a bold energy pledge in his State of the Union address, the reaction was mostly positive. The president set a target of having 80 percent of the nation's electricity "clean energy" by 2035. He called it the nation's Sputnik moment.
But reaching that goal may be as difficult as getting a man on the moon.
Take Portland, Ore., as an example. City leaders made a pledge to have all government buildings powered by renewable energy by 2010. It failed miserably, reaching only 9 percent. The state of Oregon set a similar goal and did even worse getting to just 2 percent.
Critics say the pledges are usually overly expensive pipe dreams.
"Not only are these goals imposed by politicians unrealistic to begin with," said Todd Wynn of the Cascade Policy Institute, "but they failed miserably at reaching them because the costs of renewable energy are significantly higher than traditional energy sources."
Thirty-seven states have laws requiring utilities to meet renewable power standards. Some are much more aggressive than others. Most are behind schedule and some are considering scrapping the goals altogether.
But officials at the Department of Energy say the goals are reachable by investing in new technologies and improving some old ones.
"Twenty-five years from now, the potential in the technology area is amazing," said David Sandalow, assistant secretary of policy and international affairs at the Department of Energy."
Sandalow said he sees a day when every home has a solar panel roof and small nuclear reactors are spread throughout the country.
Using Obama's definition of "clean energy," the United States is currently 40 percent clean. He includes wind, solar and biomass, which are established and growing renewable sources of electricity.
But Obama also includes natural gas, nuclear and clean coal, which draws criticism from environmentalists.
"There's no such thing as clean coal," said K.C. Golden of Climate Solutions. "It's an inherently dirty fuel, it produces the most carbon pollution of any fuel along with mercury and sulfer dioxide."
Golden says technology aimed at sequestering the emissions from a coal plant has promise, but could prove too expensive.
Nuclear power opponents are also stunned. It's been more than 30 years since a nuclear power plant has been built in the U.S. Yet, the president's 2012 budget sets aside $36 billion in federal loan guarantees to help finance the building of nuclear power plants. One big reason the nuclear power program stalled in the 70s was because plants were enormously expensive to build and banks became unwilling to finance them.
The president's budget also calls for a doubling of money devoted to research and development of clean power. To pay for the $8 billion investment, Obama proposes cutting subsidies to oil, coal and natural gas producers. Many Republicans oppose the plan saying it will drive up the cost of energy putting the nation's shaky recovery on even less stable footing.