Solar gets a nod in U.S. President Obama’s last State of the Union address

U.S. President Barack Obama gave his seventh and final State of the Union address tonight, before he is forced out by term limits in early 2017. Solar, other forms of renewable energy and climate change shared space in the speech with a wide range of other issues.

The United States is one of the few nations on earth where a sizable portion of politicians in the federal government openly debate man-made climate change. Early in the speech, which lasted slightly more than one hour, President Obama took aim directly at this, pointing out how increasingly absurd this position has become.

“If anybody still wants to dispute the science around climate change, have at it,” stated President Obama. “You’ll be pretty lonely, because you’ll be debating our military, most of America’s business leaders, the majority of the American people, almost the entire scientific community, and 200 nations around the world who agree it’s a problem and intend to solve it.”

With this position dealt with, Obama made multiple references to the transition to renewable energy, and the U.S. role in it, emphasizing at different times technological innovation, business opportunities, consumer empowerment and jobs.

After announcing a new national initiative to find a cure for cancer, Obama stated that “we need the same level of commitment when it comes to clean energy sources”. He also noted that the benefits of renewable energy extend well beyond climate change, asking the crowd “Why would we want to pass up the opportunity for American businesses to produce and sell the energy of the future?”

Obama also alluded to changes in energy policy regarding fossil fuel use and extraction, stating that oil and coal resources need to “better reflect the costs they impose on taxpayers and our planet”.

This is an interesting position, given that Obama has not been an enemy to the oil and gas industry. The compromise budget legislation including an extension of the federal Investment Tax Credit pushed by Obama and passed in late December lifted a 40-year ban on oil exports, and domestic oil and gas production is at an all-time high.

But while comprehensively cutting subsidies for fossil fuels has yet to be achieved, many of the policy initiatives to support Obama’s clean energy rhetoric have already been announced.

Obama mentioned the three-fold increase in wind capacity and the 30-fold increase in solar capacity during his presidency by referencing support in the 2009 “stimulus” legislation. As for research and development (R&D), during the recent COP21 climate talks in Paris Obama announced that the United States was joining Bill Gates’ Mission Innovation program with 19 other nations.

One area where rhetoric may reflect hope than policy is in consumer empowerment. While Obama stated that “we’re taking steps to give homeowners the freedom to generate and store their own energy”, the fight for net metering as an enabling policy for rooftop solar is happening at the state level, and for practical proposes outside the control of the federal government.