President Focuses on Solar Energy During State of the Union Speech

President Obama made the development of cleaner energy a central tenet of his State of the Union speech Tuesday night, a theme he also had stressed in his 2010 address to Congress and the nation.

This time, after a year in which more than 50 solar-related companies announced plans to establish or expand manufacturing facilities, the topic drew more bipartisan applause. The president said that a “new goal” will be for the nation to generate 80 percent of its electricity from clean energy sources by 2035.

That figure includes generation from cleaner coal plants, nuclear plants and natural gas, as well as from renewable sources, he said. The country already gets about 55 percent of electricity from natural gas, nuclear, hydroelectric and renewable sources. “Clean coal” is still in the development and demonstration stage.

As in 2009, Mr. Obama again referred to the competition the United States faces from other countries in advancing solar and other renewable sources of energy as nations vie to gain an edge. Since the start of the Industrial Revolution, development of energy sources for mass use has been the backbone of societal advancement and allowed first Great Britain and then the United States to attain world leadership roles.

“The rules have changed,” Mr. Obama said, and “In a single generation, revolutions in technology have transformed the way we live, work and do business.” He said that “nations like China and India realized that with some changes of their own, they could compete in this new world,” and he added, “Just recently, China became home to the world’s largest private solar research facility, and the world’s fastest computer.”

Echoing recent remarks by Secretary of Energy Steven Chu, the president spoke of the present as “our Sputnik moment,” a reference to the shock and awe that were felt across the country when the Soviet Union in 1957 launched a satellite into space that overflew the United States, engendering fear that the communist country had developed technological capabilities that the United States could not match.

“But after investing in better research and education, we didn’t just surpass the Soviets; we unleashed a wave of innovation that created new industries and millions of new jobs,” the president said. He said he will propose a budget within a few weeks that will seek to reinvigorate U.S. research and development.

“We’ll invest in biomedical research, information technology, and especially clean energy technology – an investment that will strengthen our security, protect our planet, and create countless new jobs for our people,” Mr. Obama said.

“Already, we are seeing the promise of renewable energy,” he added. “Robert and Gary Allen are brothers who run a small Michigan roofing company. After September 11th, they volunteered their best roofers to help repair the Pentagon. But half of their factory went unused, and the recession hit them hard.

“Today, with the help of a government loan, that empty space is being used to manufacture solar shingles that are being sold all across the country. In Robert’s words, ‘We reinvented ourselves.’

“That’s what Americans have done for over 200 years: reinvented ourselves. And to spur on more success stories like the Allen brothers, we’ve begun to reinvent our energy policy. We’re not just handing out money. We’re issuing a challenge. We’re telling America’s scientists and engineers that if they assemble teams of the best minds in their fields, and focus on the hardest problems in clean energy, we’ll fund the Apollo Projects of our time.

“At the California Institute of Technology, they’re developing a way to turn sunlight and water into fuel for our cars. At Oak Ridge National Laboratory, they’re using supercomputers to get a lot more power out of our nuclear facilities. With more research and incentives, we can break our dependence on oil with biofuels, and become the first country to have 1 million electric vehicles on the road by 2015.

“We need to get behind this innovation. And to help pay for it, I’m asking Congress to eliminate the billions in taxpayer dollars we currently give to oil companies. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but they’re doing just fine on their own. So instead of subsidizing yesterday’s energy, let’s invest in tomorrow’s.”

The president added that “clean-energy breakthroughs will only translate into clean-energy jobs if businesses know there will be a market for what they’re selling. So tonight, I challenge you to join me in setting a new goal: By 2035, 80 percent of America’s electricity will come from clean energy sources. Some folks want wind and solar. Others want nuclear, clean coal and natural gas. To meet this goal, we will need them all – and I urge Democrats and Republicans to work together to make it happen.”

Solar photovoltaic installation companies have recently complained that thickets of widely varying local permit regulations are slowing adoption of PV by home and business owners, and other industry representatives have said the United States is in dire need of a coherent national energy policy.

China, Germany, Japan, Italy and other countries have successfully spurred solar development in the past few years, while the United States has lagged. China has established the capacity to churn out millions of solar panels annually. In the last quarter of 2010, federal and state officials in California and Nevada approved new solar power plant projects that if built will begin to move solar electricity into the mainstream as an electricity source in the Southwest.

The Solar Energy Industries Association said nearly 100,000 Americans now work in solar-related jobs.

Published Jan. 25, 2011 by The Solar Home & Business Journal

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