Obama’s new pathways for power

By Bryan Walker 29/10/2009

Barack Obama is matching his words with action. Four days after his MIT speech on renewable energy he has announced, under the Recovery Act,  $3.4 billion in grants to improve the US electricity grid. The grants go to 100 partners with plans to install smart grid technologies in their area. The government money will be matched by industry funding for a total public-private investment worth over $8 billion.

The announcement was made in a speech at Arcadia, Florida, where he was visiting a solar energy centre to open a large-scale solar power plant. In a vigorous statement he explained why the improvement is necessary and what it will accomplish. 

’…to realize the full potential of this plant and others like it, we’ve got to do more than just add extra solar megawatts to our electrical grid.  That’s because this grid – which is made up of everything from power lines to generators to the meters in your home – still runs on century-old technology.  It wastes too much energy, it costs us too much money, and it’s too susceptible to outages and blackouts.’

It will be very good for the economy:

“Such an investment won’t just create new pathways for energy – it’s expected to create tens of thousands of new jobs all across America in areas ranging from manufacturing and construction to IT and the installation of new equipment in homes and in businesses.  It’s expected to save consumers more than $20 billion over the next decade on their utility bills… 

“It will make our grid more secure and more reliable, saving us some of the $150 billion we lose each year during power outages.  It will allow us to more effectively transport renewable energy generated in remote places to large population centers, so that a wind farm in rural South Dakota can power homes in Chicago.  And by facilitating the creation of a clean energy economy, building this 21st century energy infrastructure will help us lay a foundation for lasting growth and prosperity…

“Here in this region of Florida, this project will reduce demand for electricity by up to 20 percent during the hottest summer days that stress the grid and power plants.  It will provide smart meters to 2.6 million more customers.  And most importantly, it will create thousands of jobs – good jobs, by the way, that can’t be outsourced; jobs that will last and jobs that pay a decent wage.”

He is prepared to use mobilisation analogies:

“So at this moment, there is something big happening in America when it comes to creating a clean energy economy.  But getting there will take a few more days like this one and more projects like this one.  And I have often said that the creation of such an economy is going to require nothing less than the sustained effort of an entire nation – an all-hands-on-deck approach similar to the mobilization that preceded World War II or the Apollo Project.” 

He followed with optimistic remarks about the progress of the legislation now with the Senate and delivered a broadside against the delayers:

“Now, I have to be honest with you, though.  The closer we get to this new energy future, the harder the opposition is going to fight, the more we’re going to hear from special interests and lobbyists in Washington whose interests are contrary to the interests of the American people.  Now, there are those who are also going to suggest that moving towards a clean energy future is going to somehow harm the economy or lead to fewer jobs.  And they’re going to argue that we should do nothing, stand pat, do less, or delay action yet again…

“We’ve engaged in this same type of debate a lot of times through our history.  People don’t like change, and they get nervous about it… 

“It’s a debate between looking backwards and looking forward; between those who are ready to seize the future and those who are afraid of the future.

This led to enthusiastic words about the capacity of the American people to embrace progress and reach out for a more promising future, words which I won’t try to pull out of their domestic political context.

In my review of Lester Brown’s Plan B 4.0 I wrote of Brown’s sensible optimism and of his sense that movement on renewable energy is already strongly under way, needing only strategic government action to fully enable it. Obama seems to singing from the same song sheet.  One senses from his speeches and accompanying actions how politically feasible the transition to new sources of energy may yet prove to be.