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US State of the Union 2014: A Back Seat for Renewable Energy

Broader domestic social issues and an international policy that moves away from "a permanent war footing" took center stage in President Obama's State of the Union address (SOTUS) last night. Domestic energy policies, including renewable energy, largely took a back seat to the President's bigger talking points: hiking the minimum wage for federal contractors, urging final immigration reforms, strong pushes in employment and job-training, education, retirement savings, and healthcare.

After a brief initial tidbit -- how more oil now is produced at home than we buy from the rest of the world for first time in nearly 20 years -- domestic energy wasn't mentioned until the half-hour mark, when President Obama referred to the success of his "all of the above" energy strategy. One reason, he said, is because of natural gas which he called "the bridge fuel that can power our economy" with reduced carbon pollution, and he pledged to assist what he described as nearly $100 billion being invested in new factories that use natural gas.

The other reason is renewable energy, and specifically the U.S.' global leadership role in solar, he said, pointing out that a new home or business gets solarized every four minutes -- and "every panel pounded into place by a worker whose job cannot be outsourced." (Those jobs are growing tenfold the national average, a just-released study found.)

President Obama also urged attention to tax reform specifically to benefit renewables. "Let's continue that progress with a smarter tax policy that stops giving $4 billion a year to fossil fuel industries that don't need it, so we can invest more in the fuels of the future that do," he said. Presumably this was a reference to proposed U.S. energy tax reforms, but how much those proposals are changed or revised, and how soon in an Congressional election year, probably won't be known for months. Nevertheless that was enough of a foothold for several groups to urge more action in their post-SOTUS reactions. Peter Kelley, AWEA's VP of Public Affairs, noted how far wind energy prices have come down and its contribution to the power grid has gone up, and both should continue "so long as there is continued policy support."

Lastly, President Obama pulled back the discussion to the broader issue of climate change, noting that over the past eight years the U.S. has reduced its total carbon pollution "more than any nation on Earth." Underscoring the nation's commitment to renewable energy, the President acknowledged that "this shift to a clean energy economy won't happen overnight," and vaguely noted that "it will require some tough choices along the way." But he asserting that climate change is fact, and urged that "when our children's children look us in the eye and ask if we did all we could, I want us to be able to say, 'yes we did.'"

Here's the official transcript of the President's speech.

The past two SOTUSes had emphasized a focus on renewable power generation, including more development on federal lands (which continues to happen) and a call for action on climate change (which materialized by mid-year in proposed new clean air and power plant regulations). He proposed taking royalties from drilling on federal land to fund renewable energy development of biofuels, batteries, natural gas as a transportation fuel, but little has happened since -- though a version of this plan has been floated by the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) as a possible solution to the U.S.-China trade case, taking a slice of profits from imported products to fund domestic solar manufacturing.

Republican responses to the SOTUS energy talking points urged further expansion of domestic capabilities, criticizing administration's regulations for drilling and exploration. Speaker John Boehner suggested energy production has increased despite the Obama administration's policies, not because of them. Republicans also widely pointed to the KeystoneXL pipeline, which received no mentions in the President's speech, as another example that could further ensure America's energy independence.

And finally: in a Cold War-originating tradition, one Cabinet member is kept out of the Capitol during the SOTUS as a "designated survivor" in case of unfathomable catastrophe that eliminates the rest of the government. This year that designee was none other than Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz who now reassumes his place as 12th in line to the Oval Office.

Lead image: Inside view on the rotunda ceiling of US Capitol, via Shutterstock

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