Why Clean Power Needs Obama

As President-elect Barack Obama is sworn in at 11:30 am in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday afternoon, the world is officially welcoming a dramatic shift in U.S. policy and federal support for renewable energy and the fight for climate change. It’s a shift that is coming at a crucial moment in history. Scientists like James Hansen are saying that the next four years are the countdown on the clock for action on global warming. Basically, we can still effect change now, but action has to be dramatic and aggressive.

The millions that have gathered in D.C. to witness the inaugural event aren’t waiting to hear about Obama’s stance on clean power, but, like the entrepreneurs, scientists, investors and engineers in the cleantech industry, they’re also desperate for change. The previous administration has managed to position the U.S. on the wrong course on all climate issues, from the Kyoto Protocol to scientists like Hansen, who claims that they censored his CO2 reduction data. (For more insights, read this awesome Grist overview on the administration’s missteps).

Even before taking office tomorrow, Obama has pledged more support for the climate change fight than the previous administration has set forth throughout its term. The proposed stimulus package — a Green New Deal of sorts — contains $54 billion for clean power, with billions more for public transportation and clean water, and Obama has called for a total of$150 billion over a decade for clean power. Obama has also placed key scientists and policymakers that support boosting funding for clean technology in his cabinet, including Steven Chu as Energy Secretary, Carol Browner as Climate and Energy Czar, Lisa Jackson as Environmental Protection Agency Administrator, and Nancy Sutley as head of the White House Council on Environmental Quality.

It remains to be seen whether the green stimulus package will pass (it’s already seeing push back from Republicans) and if the injection of funds will translate into millions of jobs. But emphasizing energy efficiency, both through smart grid investments and cutting building energy consumption, is smart — efficiency programs cost utilities about half of what it takes to build out power generation.

Ultimately the stimulus package will only take clean power so far. The U.S. will need some way to put a price on carbon, either through a carbon tax or a cap-and-trade system. And both those items will likely wait until the economy has leveled — at this point it’s easy to be positive about promises and first steps.

While the next six months will be rocky for investments in solar, wind and other clean power projects, as Obama is sworn into office, the U.S. is now on the right track at a crucial time in history.