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Part 1: Lots at Stake in the US as Energy Takes Political Spotlight

At this point, it would have been easy for President Obama to distance himself from solar energy, wind power, algal biofuels or any other technology that's held up as proof that the government should have a hands-off strategy to clean energy.

But Obama’s not running away from renewable energy. In fact, it seems like he’s running toward it faster than anyone expected six months ago. And in an election year, it’s clear that he and his Republican opponents are aiming to make our energy future one of the central issues come November. This, conceivably, has the Republican base licking its chops. Could Obama possibly endorse the very type of technology that’s given him his biggest lumps of late?

Yet, there he was last week in a very Solyndra-like moment. Amid the backdrop of solar technology, he used the stage the tout the future of renewable energy and the government’s role in allowing that future to unfold.

During a visit to the Copper Mountain Solar 1 Facility near Boulder City, Nev., Obama reiterated the measured phrase he first mentioned during his State of the Union address in January. "As long as I'm president, we will not walk away from the promise of clean energy."

Obama’s Western energy tour is about more than solar and wind. It’s part of the “all-of-the-above” strategy he and Republicans alike have been pushing in the runup to the general election in the fall. For Republican candidates, “all-of-the-above” has mostly translated to “all-that-is-below.” And we’re not talking geothermal energy. For Obama, that phrase is about a begrudging realization that we remain an oil economy, but also one that would be wise to move forcefully toward new solutions that would ensure our place on the geopolitical map.

The president could be upping the energy ante for a number of reasons — job creation, climate change, American innovation. He could also be using his stance to placate those in his party who say he has not done enough to head off environmental concerns surrounding natural gas and the Keystone XL pipeline.

More likely, he’s probably come to believe that most Americans are on his side of the clean energy debate. That is, more Independents believe that there should be more to our energy policy than oil, natural gas, nuclear and coal. Perhaps likely GOP nominee Mitt Romney believes this as well and maybe he’ll do as his campaign advisor recently indicated and he’ll wipe the Etch-a-Sketch clean by tacking toward the center on the energy issue. Even so, it could prove hard to get away from comments he has made recently, especially when he called on Energy Secretary Steven Chu to step down and when he tells voters things like, "You can't drive a car with a windmill on it."

This much is clear after a week in which Obama took an energy tour of Western states and Republican legislator Paul Ryan released his House budget plan — Energy will be on the election menu, and come November, it will be feast or famine.

Top get a better sense of how renewables will fare in the coming political storm, we spoke with Republican and Democratic polling firms, with key members of the renewables industry and with the senior legislative staff of a key member of the House Subcommittee on Energy and Power. In this story, we’ll look at the political backdrop, and later this week, we’ll focus on the chances of legislation and how the renewable industries can get its message out.

Voters Want Renewable Energy

It may seem counter to what we’re hearing on the campaign trail, but the polling data shows that an overwhelming number of conservative voters believe we should be investing more in alternative sources of energy. Where the most conservative voters split, it seems, is in what government’s role should be. Should there be federal support through policy and targeted investment, or should the government’s role be specifically limited to sparking innovation in research labs?

But the overriding question posed to Democratic campaign veteran Donnie Folwer of Dogpatch Strategies, Republican pollster Lori Weigel of Public Opinion Strategies and Democratic pollster Dave Metz of FM3 during the recent conference at PV America West in San Jose., Calif., is why this data has yet to transcend on the campaign trail. The answer is that the topic hasn’t carved out enough of a spot on the front page to push the candidates to where the voters may be. It’s easier in a primary, they say, to appeal to the more extreme members of your party on issues that are of less concern to those in the middle.

According to Metz, it’s an issue of salience. He says if a candidate says something negative about clean energy, it may become a general election nuisance, but it won’t sway voters one way or another unless energy becomes a central issue. He said the challenge facing advocates is to make energy a hot-button political issue during the election season.

Well, clean energy advocates may have just gotten their wish. Now more than ever, it looks like energy policy may actually play a central role between now and November, and the reason has everything to do with your taxes and your gas tank.

Political Posturing

There’s been a fundamental shift in the past month or so as energy has become a main point of discussion from the political arena to the coffee counter. The question now is whether Obama and renewable energy advocates can turn scrutiny of energy policy to its favor.

Gas prices may seem like a political loss at first glance. And it’s certainly going to strengthen the call for increased domestic drilling and for the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline. But it will also force voters to look behind the veil of energy in this country. If that happens, they may not like what they see.

This new view on energy subsidies may intrigue some voters. It’s one in which young technologies like solar, wind and advanced biofuels rely on short-term extensions that get tacked onto legislation. All industries like predictability, but renewables have had little to count on as they wait for their dwindling benefits to expire. Resources like oil, natural gas and coal, meanwhile, have their subsidies built into the tax code, meaning it would take require legislators to repeal that benefit to get it off the books.

There’s been some talk about stripping out all energy subsidies, and it’s something that’s gaining steam in the halls of Congress. An amendment along those lines by Sen. Jim DeMint, R.-S.C., received support from 26 senators before falling well short of approval. The idea of an energy policy without subsidies has gained some traction in renewable energy circles, but only as long as it goes hand-in-hand with a carbon pricing system. In this political climate, that’s an impossibility. But if we just eliminate all subsidies, it would disproportionately harm the renewable industries that continue to rely on those programs. At the same time, that wouldn't cut into the various kinds of hidden subsidies that taxpayers continue to pay for fossil fuel consumption. In this country experts argue that hidden subsidies range from expensive military involvement in places like the Straight of Hormuz in the Middle East to health costs resulting from pollutants resulting from the burning of coal.

These energy subsidies are expected to be at the center of the fundamental tax reform that coming this way. Ryan has already received an endorsement from Republican leadership on his trimmed down budget, which would strip out many of the renewable energy programs hailed by Obama as necessary to compete in the global market. The bill has little shot of being taken up by a Democrat-controlled Senate, but it does lay out the stark differences between Republicans and Democrats heading into the November general election.

And from both Republicans and Democrats, those differences will be heard loud and clear.

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