What Obama Means When He Talks About Clean Energy

Last Updated Jan 31, 2011 5:03 PM EST

Gone were phrases like climate change and vague allusions to cap-and-trade. Instead, President Obama talked a lot about clean energy -- as we expected over here at BNET -- in his State of the Union address and called for what appears to a rather bold goal: by 2035, 80 percent of America's electricity will come from clean energy sources.

So what exactly does Obama mean by "clean energy"? Turns out, just about every kind of energy source you can think of.

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.
That means public enemy No. 1 will be coal, which generated 45 percent of our electricity in 2009, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. By 2035, the EIA projects coal will still make up 43 percent of the country's electricity generation. Here's a quick breakdown of current EIA electricity generation projections for 2035.
  • Renewables -- 14%
  • Natural gas -- 25%
  • Nuclear -- 17%
  • Oil and other liquids -- 1%
  • Coal -- 43%
In other words, we would need to decrease our coal use (for electricity) by some 20 percent. Nuclear, as much as some folks want it, is too costly and the approval process too unwieldy to consider it a realistic option. And clean coal? Well, it's in the never-ending research stage, meaning it doesn't exist at the moment.

The most likely option will be to boost use of natural gas, solar and wind -- with the emphasis on natural gas. To be clear, natural gas is an abundant bridge fuel, and makes sense for power generation. But there's already concern that it will crowd out other cleaner energy sources as well.

Natural gas gets partial credit
Now, Obama's clean energy standard plan does contain an important detail that's clearly aimed at limiting the scope of natural-gas use. According to an emailed fact sheet, clean energy credits would be issued for electricity generated from renewable and nuclear; meanwhile natural gas would receive a partial credit.

Still, the natural gas industry, which has a powerful lobby backing it and support in Congress, will surely push for a change in that language.

The concern here, and one also noted by Greentech Media, is that by including gas in clean energy standard it's possible it will receive the bulk of research grants, loan guarantees and other federal funds. Which is ironic, considering Obama plans to fund much of these clean energy innovation goals by ending $4 billion in annual tax subsidies to the oil and gas industry. If that were to occur -- I give it 50-1 odds -- subsidies would end for oil, but may very well end up right back where they started for gas.

Photo from White House