Ask the Experts: Obama Energy Goals Realistic?

During his State of the Union speech last evening, President Obama articulated two national goals that jumped out at me: 80% of electricity from “clean” energy by 2035 and one million electric vehicles “on the road” by 2015 (just five years from now).

Keeping in mind that California’s goal of 33% renewable energy by 2020 is considered extremely ambitious, I put the question to a few experts in the renewable energy/alternative fuels field: Are these goals realistic? I’ll post their responses here as they come in. I’ve had to condense some of the replies for space considerations. Let’s take the 80% clean energy challenge first:

“Now, clean energy breakthroughs will only translate into clean energy jobs if businesses know there will be a market for what they’re selling. So tonight, I challenge you to join me in setting a new goal: by 2035, 80% of America’s electricity will come from clean energy sources.”

Ryan Wiser, Staff Scientist, Lawrence Berkeley National Lab:

An 80% by 2035 goal for clean energy in the US is clearly aggressive, as the country currently receives roughly 50% of its electricity supply from conventional coal. How aggressive an 80% goal is will depend critically on what resources are eligible under the moniker “clean
energy.” But, even assuming that all resources other than conventional coal will count as clean energy, an 80% goal still means increasing
clean energy supply and reducing conventional coal supply by roughly 30% over a 25 year period. Is such a transition technically feasible? Sure, no fundamental technical limits exist that would tell us that there is absolutely no way that such a transition could occur. But that does not mean that such a transition would be easy. The constraints will be institutional, political, social, and economic, and technical challenges would need to be overcome, but the technologies themselves certainly exist to allow such a transition.

The point about what counts is critical, and the President seemed to leave that door ajar last night:

“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.”

Some believe that it can happen. This upbeat view came in from Mark Jacobson, Woods Institute for the Environment and Precourt Institute, Stanford:

Reaching 80% clean energy by 2035 is not only in reach, but it is necessary to prevent the loss of the Arctic and spiraling health and environmental costs of air pollution and global warming. Air pollution kills 2.5-3 million people prematurely annually; global warming effects and costs are rising due to enhanced heat stress on people, damage to agricultural crops, enhanced air pollution in cities already polluted due to higher temperatures, ocean acidification, sea level rise, and more extreme weather.

The clean energy should not only apply to the electricity sector but also the transportation, residential heating/cooling, and commercial heating sectors.

Jacobson, who has just released a timely paper on the topic, also offered a ” path to implement changes,” which I’ll post separately.

And another optimistic view was offered by Dan Kammen, on leave from UC Berkeley as green energy “Czar” at the World Bank:

This goal, which sounded exceedingly optimistic only a few years ago, is now one that we can absolutely shoot for.  In an electricity modeling effort that I have been doing, a modest price on carbon and smart growth policies consistently gets to 60% decarbonized (relative to the 1990 baseline, not the current level).  This would put the country well on the way to the 80% 2035 target.  A steady stream of innovation and progressive policy choices is needed, but it is entirely in the range of goals that could be pursued as we think about scale-ups of wind, solar, geothermal, and ocean energy, and then potentially the two most
controversial ones of carbon capture and nuclear power (pending regional resource, political, and risk
appetites).

The President also called out work going on at the California Institute of Technology, where “they’re developing a way to turn sunlight and water into fuel for our cars.” Then he threw down his “one million electric vehicles” gauntlet, which I’ll address in a separate post. It seems like that same critical question could be asked of this challenge: What defines an “electric vehicle?” What do you think?

  • http://cagreening.blogspot.com/ Wes Rolley

    First a nit. Your Cal Tech link is broken.

    Now, I am not an expert. I do read Joe Romm daily, along with other energy blogs. Still, I have some major concerns with these goals. From the technological view, they are certainly reasonable. If there is enough investment in transmission, there is easily enough distributed solar / wind to handle California, and maybe everywhere.

    However, I don’t think that the US in general believes that this is a Sputnik moment just because the POTUS said so. I see no way to get a coal process that is clean enough to scale to the size we need. In fact, along with peak oil, we might also be approaching peak coal.

    As long as David Gregory, Charlie Rose, Bill Scheiffer, Jim Lehrer, Christiane Amanpour, et. al. are not asking tough questions of Dr. Chu, or Fred Upton, or Darrell Issa, then public opinion is not changing and that needs to change before these policies will take place. Just look at H. R.97 as the attempt to kill the EPA. We know that it will not pass into law, but the debate will be poison to energy policy reform.

    • Craig Miller

      Thanks, Wes. That link should be fixed now and I’ve added some more replies, with bio links for the responding scientists.