President Barack Obama made a big show for Earth Day of his commitment to a much greener energy future, and in the process paid a huge compliment to California for dramatically altering its energy path three decades ago. But even though California, as Obama puts it, shows the rest of America what can be done, it's not enough.
Obama spoke after touring a wind energy equipment factory, once a Maytag washing machine factory, in Newton, Iowa. While he talked up innovation in new technologies, he noted that, in our history, increases in innovation are generally coupled with big increases in consumption. And that that can lead to disaster.
Obama framed the the development of green energy technology -- which includes energy efficiency tech as well as renewable sources such as wind, solar, waves, geothermal, and biomass -- as the way out of the usual false choice on the environment.
"The choice we face," he said, "is not between saving our environment and saving our economy. The choice we face is between prosperity and decline. We can remain the world's leading importer of oil, or we can become the world's leading exporter of clean energy. We can allow climate change to wreak unnatural havoc across the landscape, or we can create jobs working to prevent its worst effects. We can hand over the jobs of the 21st century to our competitors, or we can confront what countries in Europe and Asia have already recognized as both a challenge and an opportunity: The nation that leads the world in creating new energy sources will be the nation that leads the 21st-century global economy."
For those who think that it's too hard to build an economy without pursuing the old course on energy, Obama pointed to California, the world's seventh largest economy.
"Think about this," he said. "I want everybody to think about this. Over the last several decades, the rest of the country, we used 50 percent more energy; California remained flat, used the same amount, even though that they were growing just as fast as the rest of the country -- because they were more energy efficient. They put in some good policy early on that assured that they weren't wasting energy. Now, if California can do it, then the whole country can do it. Iowa can do it."
What happened those several decades ago is that then Governor Jerry Brown sharply shifted California's direction on energy policy.
At the time, the 1970s and early 1980s, Brown was derided by status quo interests and conventional thinkers in the media for pursuing a policy of "woodchips and windmills." (So it was amusing for me to hear none other than George W. Bush declare in a "State of the Union" address that wind energy and, yes, woodchips were part of his policy, too, because it wasn't all just about oil. Though, of course, it mainly was.)
What Brown decided to do, and succeeded in doing, was to cut California's annual rate of growth in electric power demand from 7% to 2% during his two terms as governor. In the process, California's energy policy developed a heavy focus on conservation, energy efficiency, renewable energy sources, and cleaner-burning fossil fuels in the form of natural gas-fired plants as a bridge to the renewable future. Absent that, California would now be littered with scores of obsolete yet hugely expensive conventional power plants, a great many of them nuclear.
The two Republican governors who succeeded Brown, George Deukmejian and Pete Wilson, didn't share Jerry Brown's enthusiasm for renewable energy. But they did like the greater efficiency in energy consumption.
When Democrat Gray Davis, Brown's chief of staff during California's big shift on energy strategy, became governor, he returned to the renewable course. And Arnold Schwarzenegger, the Republican who succeeded him, continued it, actually ramping it up further.
Under Davis, California adopted a renewable portfolio standard, in which the state committed to having 20% of its electric power generated by renewable sources by 2017. Schwarzenegger accelerated that target to 2010, with 33% to be renewable by 2020.
But, and this is a warning for Obama about how implementation can be difficult and is key for any politician with a very expansive agenda, Schwarzenegger's accelerated goal for California is slipping.
At the end of 2008, the share of California electric power that is from renewable sources stood around 12%. Very good compared to most, but well short of Schwarzenegger's accelerated target. Critics point to foot-dragging by utilities and opposition by some enviros to transmission lines.
Indeed, Center for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Technologies director V. John White, a former Sierra Club lobbyist who is one of the premier advocates for renewable power and works closely with the industry, says that 90% of California's current renewable power portfolio stems from decisions made during Jerry Brown's administration. Which is a lot better for Brown than it is for California.
Obama has a big agenda going, with a vast geopolitical portfolio that is simply in another dimension from what's dealt with at the state level. It would not be hard for this very ambitious new president to be distracted from this mission, key though it is to his economic and environmental agendas.
The saving grace is that it's key to Obama's geopolitical agenda as well.
Until we change the resource base of the economy, America's foreign policy will always be a very risky business. And forget about that "Drill, baby, drill" stuff. That's non-serious, which is why Sarah Palin was so into it. Aside from the bad environmental policy of it, and the fact that it's akin to kicking heroin by getting more heroin, the amount of oil involved is a relative drop in the bucket. Which leaves us in the same old mess.
A Governor Jerry Brown or a Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger can talk about green energy as key to greater energy independence all he wants, but he can't declare it a national security priority.
A President Barack Obama can.