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Obama's Climate Action Plan: Domestic Renewable Energy

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2013-07-05-WindTurbing.jpg Last week, President Obama presented his Climate Action Plan. The plan sets out 1) to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, especially carbon; 2) to prepare the U.S. for the impacts of climate change; and 3) to lead international efforts to avert global warming.

Renewable energy forms a crucial component of President Obama's climate action plan. And its growth, despite fickle funding for it, has been exponential.

As President Obama outlined in his climate speech, "Over the past four years, we've doubled the electricity that we generate from zero-carbon wind and solar power."

He continued, "jobs installing the solar panels that now generate more than four times the power at less cost than just a few years ago."

Wind, too, has witnessed epic growth: "jobs manufacturing the wind turbines that now generate enough electricity to power nearly 15 million homes."

Moreover, "75 percent of all wind energy in this country is generated in Republican districts."

Tom Kiernan, CEO of the American Wind Energy Association, praised President Obama's climate speech, stating ""We welcome the President's initiative to proceed with climate actions focused at this time on executive agencies."

"American workers," he added, "make nearly 70 percent of the equipment deployed here. And wind power is more affordable than ever, protecting electric consumers with 25-year contracts and no risk of fuel price shocks."

President Obama also touted the efforts of states to pass renewable energy standards or renewable portfolio standards, stating "more than 35 [states] have set renewable energy targets."

These state level efforts successfully circumvented gridlock internationally -- the failure to pass a binding international agreement at the UN climate talks -- and nationally -- the failure to pass national climate legislation.

Not surprisingly, states with renewable portfolio programs have seen an increase in the amount of electricity generated from renewable fuels. Thus, implementing these standards nationally or internationally would boost renewable energy.

In fact, the surge in renewable energy standards has been so successful it has been met with a determined and organized backlash led by the Koch Brothers and fossil fuel industry funded and allied American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).

To wit, President Obama's speech spent much more time on renewable energy than it did on natural gas or nuclear energy, although plans for both are covered in his Climate Action Plan, suggesting that he understands the importance of and support for renewable energy, as well as its role in solving climate change and in creating jobs.

President Obama announced his intentions to ramp up renewable energy: "So the plan I'm announcing today will help us double again our energy from wind and sun."

Currently, the U.S. derives 9 percent of its energy from renewable sources, after petroleum (36 percent), natural gas (25 percent) and coal (20 percent), and before nuclear power (8 percent).

Earlier last week, the International Energy Agency released its second annual market report predicating that renewable energy will be the second most used energy source by 2016, exceed gas and be twice that of nuclear energy.

Shifting the balance among energy sources involves looking at what each energy source feeds. Seventy-one percent of petroleum, for example, is used for transportation. Thus, solutions have been promoted to shift the entire U.S. fleet of mail trucks, or public transportation buses or schools buses to electric vehicles.

As Christian Parenti outlines in "The Big Green Buy", "Uncle Sam owns or leases more than 430,000 buildings (mostly large office buildings) and 650,000 vehicles... A redirection of government purchasing would create massive markets for clean power, electric vehicles and efficient buildings."

In other words, as he put it in his more recent "Problems with the Math": "government consumption (not just its R&D investment) is a powerful force that has created whole markets and new technologies."

It's a point found in Obama's approach, as he stated in his climate speech: "Our federal government also has to lead by example."

"So today, I'm setting a new goal: Your federal government will consume 20 percent of its electricity from renewable sources within the next seven years" or by 2020.

The majority of coal (91 percent) and nuclear energy (100 percent) is used to produce electricity. But that's also where the highest percentage of renewable energy (55 percent) goes. In other words, ramping up renewable energy could continue the current downward trend of coal and nuclear energy.

Currently, the U.S. derives 12 percent of its electricity from renewable sources, after coal (37 percent), natural gas (30 percent), nuclear (19 percent) and petroleum (1 percent). And renewable energy is poised to leapfrog ahead in the next decade.

Rhone Resch, president and CEO of the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) said: "Today, more than 30 utility-scale, clean energy solar projects are under construction," she said, "putting thousands of electricians, steelworkers and laborers to work and helping to reduce carbon emissions from power plants ... along with rooftop solar on homes, businesses and schools."

"Today, solar employs nearly 120,000 Americans at more than 5,600 companies," Resch continued, "most of which are small businesses spread across the United States, making solar one of the fastest growing industries in America. Part of this amazing growth is attributed to the fact that the cost of a solar system has dropped by nearly 40 percent over the past two years, making solar more affordable than ever."

But it seems like plans are afoot to ensure that neither the coal or nuclear energy industry loses out entirely: intentions to continue coal exports and to fund coal-fired and nuclear power plants abroad form part of the Climate Action Plan.

This tricky calculus will allow President Obama to celebrate a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions domestically, while ensuring that the fossil fuel and nuclear energy industry continue to grow.

But exporting these dirty -- that is, carbon or methane producing -- power plants to developing countries hardly addresses global warming. A true solution to climate change will have to recognize that it's a global problem and we're all in it together. Appeasing the fossil fuel industry by exporting dirty energy is not going to change this fact.

To this end, President Obama's proposals for renewable energy outlined in his climate speech and the Climate Action Plan puts forward to two-pronged demand: to ensure that it continues to grow domestically; and to ensure that it is funded in developing nations (and that it does not take the back seat to coal-fired or nuclear power plants).

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