Cleantech, Climate in the Spotlight at the State of the Union

Cleantech, Climate in the Spotlight at the State of the Union

Allison Donnelly for Zondits, January 22, 2015

The State of the Union address is an opportunity for the President to comment on where the nation stands, but more than that, it sets the tone for the policy issues that the administration wants to pursue. Consider it a policy wish list, but also consider it a chance to highlight places where the US has made strides and wants to continue that way. Of course, what isn’t mentioned is sometimes as important as what is. Let’s take a look at how cleantech and climate featured in the 2015 State of the Union.

Wind and Solar Triumphant

In an overall optimistic address that declared early on that “the shadow of crisis has passed, and the State of the Union is strong,” renewables were one of its success stories. While first mentioning that the US was now “first in oil and gas,” Obama went on to declare that “America is number one in wind power. Every three weeks, we bring online as much solar power as we did in all of 2008.” He also had praise for the electric-auto maker Tesla, which he cited along with Google and eBay as one of the relatively new companies contributing to job growth during his presidency.

Infrastructure and Keystone XL

One of the objectives Obama announced as a priority is an infrastructure plan: “21st-century businesses need 21st-century infrastructure – modern ports, stronger bridges, faster trains, and the fastest Internet.” While this isn’t a direct reference to cleantech, the industry has a lot to offer for cutting-edge infrastructure, especially in regards to electricity and a smarter distribution grid. One of the graphics put out by the White House in conjunction with the address also makes reference to the solar roadway technology designed by an Idaho couple. “Let’s set our sights higher than a single oil pipeline,” Obama said, referring to the controversial Keystone XL pipeline that has been a partisan debate topic for multiple years now. Some cleantech proponents have suggested recently that the pipeline – a priority for the Republican party – could be used as a bargaining chip for policies on renewables, a national energy policy, smart infrastructure, and emissions targets.

Unequivocal on Climate

Obama took his strongest stance yet on climate, spending three paragraphs on the subject that has been avoided in the past due to its political tension. The President took aim at a popular remark – I’m not a scientist and don’t know enough to act – by pointing out that the best scientists at NASA, NOAA, and America’s top universities are all saying that this is a major problem caused by human activities and the US needs to act. “The Pentagon says that climate change poses immediate risks to our national security,” Obama said. “We should act like it.” He then pointed to the recent agreement between the US and China that would lead to both countries limiting their emissions as an example of what the US is trying to do on the issue. Just hours after address, the Senate voted 98 to 1 that “climate change is real and not a hoax,” but 49 to 50 that “human activity significantly contributes to climate change” as part of the Keystone XL debates.

No Cleantech Objectives

In past addresses, Obama has put out a call to action on various cleantech and climate issues (a cap-and-trade bill, doubling renewables by 2012, 1 million electric vehicles by 2015, 80% of electricity from renewables by 2035, a national renewable energy standard, and an energy efficiency bill, among others). Not so in this address. Other than the infrastructure plan, which is indirectly related to cleantech, there were no actual policy objectives for the sector. Neither was there a call to support the EPA’s Clean Power Plan, which was deemed the best way to decrease carbon dioxide emissions from power plants after the cap-and-trade plan died in the Senate in 2010. In fact, the controversial standard wasn’t even mentioned – though there was a notice to Congress that Obama wouldn’t let them “endanger the health of our children by turning back the clock on our efforts.”

While the 2015 State of the Union address was mostly vague on policy efforts in the cleantech and climate arenas, the year will see a flurry of activity around the Keystone XL pipeline and the EPA’s Clean Power Plan that may also pull in a number of recurring clean energy policy topics. However, it’s clear that the growth in cleantech is considered a major achievement for the United States – and will continue to be.