Should Obama Take Credit For The Clean Tech Revolution?

In his State of the Union speech this week, President Obama spent a lot of time discussing energy and the country’s progress on clean technology and lowering carbon emissions.  He specifically referenced the 2009 stimulus investments:

Seven years ago, we made the single biggest investment in clean energy in our history. Here are the results. In fields from Iowa to Texas, wind power is now cheaper than dirtier, conventional power. On rooftops from Arizona to New York, solar is saving Americans tens of millions of dollars a year on their energy bills, and employs more Americans than coal – in jobs that pay better than average. We’re taking steps to give homeowners the freedom to generate and store their own energy – something environmentalists and Tea Partiers have teamed up to support. Meanwhile, we’ve cut our imports of foreign oil by nearly sixty percent, and cut carbon pollution more than any other country on Earth.

As the New York Times reports, however, some experts are disputing these claims:

“That paragraph as it relates to energy and climate issues — I thought it was the most troubling paragraph of the whole speech,” said David Victor, an expert on energy policy at the University of California, San Diego. “It’s very hard to attribute the bulk of what’s happening now in terms of bending the emissions curve and increasing renewables specifically to the stimulus.”

The article does a good job going through the arguments on both sides.

To my mind, the stimulus was critical for boosting clean technology by extending existing tax credits for renewable investments and converting them to much-needed cash grants. It also provided life-saving loans for critical companies Tesla, as well as highly effective tax credits for electric vehicle purchases. Finally, it funded advanced research in clean technology through the most important new agency on climate change in the federal government, ARPA-E.

But it’s worth putting this progress in context.  For example, California, an economy larger than India, has boosted demand greatly for solar through state policies, as have the majority of states in the union.  China has brought down solar panel costs dramatically with manufacturing investments.  And the switch to natural gas from coal, brought about by technology changes related to fracking, are largely responsible for the country’s reduction in carbon emissions.

Still, it’s been a confluence of events that has resulted in the progress we’ve made to date, and I think it’s fine for Obama to take credit as he did.  The efforts of his administration have been a necessary — but probably not sufficient — part of that success.


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