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Clean Energy Industry Skeptical Of Obama's Goals

First Posted: 01/27/11 10:21 AM ET Updated: 05/25/11 07:30 PM ET

Cleantech Obama

Despite the President's strong affirmation of his clean energy goals during Tuesday's State of the Union Address, the clean energy industry has been reserved in its enthusiasm.

Among President Obama's promises were that the U.S. would reach 80 percent dependence on renewable sources by 2035, and that he would put 1 million electric vehicles on the road by 2015. But Obama has set clean energy goals before that have failed to materialize in the governmental support necessary for their completion.

One concern many seem to share is the President's grouping of nuclear energy under the same umbrella as other renewable sources. Nuclear energy has the potential to create long-lasting radioactive wastes, as well as carrying other associated security terms.

"If you think of the sources of electricity that are absolutely carbon free--in the generation sense--photovoltaics, wind, geothermal, nuclear--we're over thirty percent now," said Secretary of Energy Steven Chu, on a conference call with reporters. "If you then give partial credit to natural gas, in that it's roughly speaking, half the carbon emission of coal, then we go higher."

For those in the auto industry, reaching the goal of one million electric vehicles on the road by 2015 will be a matter of bridging rhetoric and reality.

"You could get close to a million on the road with a little more push. We just dont see that push," said Philip Gott, Managing Director of automotive consulting at IHS Global Insight. "The thing that politicians fail to realize is that if you turn around and say, 'I want a million vehicles out there next year,' it wont necessarily happen. It takes a while to ramp up production, to get the facilities in place."

And even though Obama seems to understand the urgency of pushing for a clean energy future, in the short term the industry still lacks the kind of federal support it requires to thrive. The president's statement that he would cease subsidies to oil companies to help create the capital for green investments will surely be subject to aggressive opposition by powerful fossil fuel interests. Chu stated that the president would seek $8 billion in clean energy spending in the new federal budget.

Funding for cleantech companies could be complicated by the government's approach to investment subsidies, many of which renew on short-term time periods, and can make the long-term development of the industry murky. China -- a country the president called out in his speech as a global competitor to watch -- has policies so attractive that numerous U.S. companies have set up shop there.

The U.S. failed to pass a comprehensive green energy policy (like the one China, among other countries, has) this past summer. With Congress divided, it seems questionable that Obama will have the chance to push through that kind of omnibus bill -- though he did not promise to do so in this year's State of the Union, as he did in 2010.

But for now, the industry will just have to wait and see if words will be matched by action.

"It's an ambitious goal just as the moon shot was ambitious," said Chu. "But it is an achievable goal."

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