Obama's Budget Ups the Ante for Cleantech

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So acute is the dysfunction in our national politics that few believe the president's proposed budget for the fiscal year of 2013 has any chance of passing. Instead, headlines around the nation expounded on the notion that it's instead primarily intended to lay out his priorities—it's symbolic, not technocratic.

But the consolation is that, where it concerns the vital areas of clean energy technology and research and development, the budget does send some encouraging signals.

Obama promised to "double down" on clean energy in his State of the Union Address, and he appears to be following through on his word here. From the Associated Press, here's a breakdown of the highlights of his energy budget:

Obama would increase spending for two priorities: clean energy and national security. The budget calls for an additional $580 million to advance clean-energy technologies such as industrial and building energy efficiency, next generation biofuels and renewable electricity generation from solar, wind, and geothermal resources. That amounts to a 13 percent increase over current levels.
And here's even more good news for cleantech:
The budget would provide $310 million for the SunShot Initiative to make solar energy cost-competitive without subsidies by the end of the decade; $95 million to develop wind energy research; and $65 million for geothermal energy. The blueprint calls for a total of $1.2 billion for energy efficiency, including initiatives to improve clean-vehicle technologies and advanced manufacturing materials. Some $770 million would go to the Office of Nuclear Energy, which includes $65 million for advanced small modular reactors and $60 million for nuclear waste research ...

The budget also includes $350 million — a 37 percent increase over 2012 — for the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E), a program that seeks to fund "transformative" energy research.

The budget also stipulates the repeal of $4 billion worth of oil subsidies, and strips $92 million from research in clean coal technology.

The message sent by this budget is clear: despite a high-profile setback or two, clean energy remains a winning horse—one that the president unambiguously supports.

As Scott Slesinger, legislative director of the Natural Resources Defense Council, said, “Overall, this forward-thinking budget would help America continue building on the progress toward a clean energy economy that creates jobs, improves our health and protects our environment.”

And there's a special emphasis on innovation: Obama wants to give the sense that he's stimulating technological progress, and helping industry fine-tune the technologies that will edge fossil fuels out of their dominant perch. He wants better, more efficient solar panels, smaller, more versatile nuclear reactors, and cooler electric cars—he wants the kind of stuff that Americans can point to and say, yep, we made that.

Of course, much greater investment than this would be needed to start a truly meaningful transition away from fossil fuels, and much more should be done—beyond slashing a few subsidies—to reflect the true costs of oil and coal in the marketplace. That would really unleash the kind of innovation we need to see. And the prerogatives listed here, themselves sure to be treated as controversial and attacked by the GOP, are hardly reminiscent of Obama's erstwhile 'Sputnik Moment', which, for the same reason, has since sputtered out.

But nonetheless; the budget priorities outlined here make for a formidable and encouraging show of confidence in the clean energy sector.

Tags: Barack Obama | Clean Energy | Congress

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