Obama's Energy Policy is Hardly Electric

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smart grid.JPG Imagine, for a minute, that you're the president of the United States and you have to deliver a barn burner of a speech about...electrical meters. It certainly helps if you can mention the $3.4 billion dollars in Stimulus Funding headed to the creation of a Smart Grid (and Whoo! Thank goodness for a snazzy term like Smart Grid, without which the president would be stuck with phrases like "real time electrical pricing" and "demand response"). We're lucky President Obama is willing to throw his oratory skills at a subject as pragmatically important and rhetorically blah as the Smart Grid. But the twin energy speeches Obama has given in the past week reveal the crushing lack of a "vision thing" in the administration's energy and climate proposals.

In last week's speech at MIT, Obama relieved many by finally coming out fighting on the topic of energy and climate change. His speech was one truism after another: The system of energy that powers our economy also undermines our security and endangers our planet." Sharing opportunities around the world means that we also share crisis.The world is in a peaceful competition for new sources of energy. For younger people, this is the challenge of a generation--a clash between innovative futurism and pessimism. Lisa Simpson, the cartoon goddess of wonky types, couldn't have written a better, smarter analysis of our energy issues herself.

Unfortunately, the speech was all analysis and no vision. Green jobs, new technology, "room for debate on how we do it," and, "no silver bullet," blah blah. The speech revealed the truism that the Stimulus is the bedrock of the administration's reform of energy policy--doling out $80 billion across the landscape is the most powerful tool they have--and the one that's least likely to be set upon by naysayers. 

Later in the speech Obama took forceful aim at the people who will oppose changing energy and climate regulation. He said we're all "complicit" in "the pessimistic notion that our politics are too broken and our people too unwilling to make hard choices for us to actually deal with this energy issue that we're facing. And implicit in this argument is the sense that somehow we've lost something important--that fighting American spirit, that willingness to tackle hard challenges, that determination to see those challenges to the end, that we can solve problems, that we can act collectively, that somehow that is something of the past."

All true. And yet. And yet. Where IS Obama's vision? In his Smart Grid speech, he compared the electrical grid to the U.S. highway system before Eisenhower. But the reform of energy and emissions is a bigger project than the Interstate Highway System, bigger than the TVA, and will create more domestic enemies than the Space Program. (Space was a famous last frontier--no one was there. In energy, lots of big players have been here for a century, paying off their infrastructure investments, like pipelines, refineries, power plants, many times over.) It's bigger than all of these combined with the Anti-Trust movement of the early 1900's. But we don't have a story for it yet. 

The key to Americans meeting all of the challenges of the past has been our willingness to believe in a Great Narrative to justify risk and sacrifice. We all know that Obama can tell a heck of a narrative, but it will mean he has to take a stand, and risk making mistakes, which he hates to do. Starting today, he needs to stop talking about the comfortable stuff like Smart Grids, and start talking big...and risky.

Photo Credit: Flickr User Ian Muttoo


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Lisa Margonelli is a writer on energy and environment. She spent four years and traveled 100,000 miles to write her book, "Oil On the Brain: Petroleum's Long Strange Trip to Your Tank." More

Lisa Margonelli directs the New America Foundation's Energy Productivity Initiative, which works to promote energy efficiency as a way of ensuring energy security, greenhouse gas emissions reductions, and economic security for American families. She spent roughly four years and traveled 100,000 miles to report her book about the oil supply chain, Oil On the Brain: Petroleum's Long Strange Trip to Your Tank, which the American Library Association named one of the 25 Notable Books of 2007. She spent her childhood in Maine where, during the energy crisis of the 1970s, her family heated the house with wood hauled by a horse. Later, fortunately, they got a tractor. The experience instilled a strong appreciation for the convenience of fossil fuels.

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