Challenges Ahead For Obama's Energy Plan

Memo To The President

In this occasional series, NPR will follow the transition from one administration to another through a series of stories, conversations, commentaries and essays that will outline the many issues and challenges facing the new occupant of the White House. From a broken military to a troubled economy to a National Park Service in need of a major overhaul — we'll provide the briefing paper, the options and the obstacles.

President-elect Barack Obama has elevated the subject of energy to urgent status, a tier above its usual place in presidential campaigns.

Obama has promised big: a $150 billion undertaking over 10 years to "green" the country's use of energy. His newly minted energy plan promotes hybrid cars, clean coal, more wind and solar power, more efficient appliances and new fuels from plants, to name just a few items. Providing all this, he says, will create millions of new jobs.

Now, Obama has to deliver — at a time when the country is knee-deep in a financial crisis. And though green energy enthusiasts and experts are elated at the attention they are getting, they also want Obama to understand what it will take to keep his promise.

Energy Efficiency

Kateri Callahan, who runs the Alliance to Save Energy, says efficiency should no longer be the poor stepchild in the energy family.

"I believe [efficiency] is going to be front and center in the Obama administration," she says. "He cites energy efficiency as the cheapest, cleanest and fastest way to tackle growing energy demand and climate."

But more efficient washing machines and vehicles won't be enough, she says. What's needed is a price on carbon emissions from traditional fossil fuels.

"That, in effect, will be a tax on energy that will raise prices, which will in fact change behavior," Callahan says.

Renewable Portfolio Standards

Wind power will also have to grow to replace more of the coal and natural gas used at electric power plants. A tax credit for wind farms has helped make wind power the fastest-growing form of new energy in the U.S.

Greg Wetstone of the American Wind Energy Association says the new administration should force utilities to buy more renewable energy like wind and solar power. The stick would be a "renewable portfolio standard," he says, in which "utilities in each state would have to provide a certain percentage of their electricity from renewable sources."

Obama's plan says the country should get 10 percent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2012. In the past, most utilities have fought such requirements.

Clean Coal

At American Electric Power, one of the country's biggest utilities, CEO Michael Morris wants to remind Obama that the country will still need to use coal — it fuels more than half the nation's power plants. Morris says he favors new renewable sources, but the "Achilles' heel" for solar and wind is the fact that the sun shines brighter and the wind blows harder in the West and Great Plains. The nation will need a huge and expensive new transmission grid to transport renewable electrons to where most Americans live.

As for coal, Morris says, there are ways to use it cleanly — removing the carbon dioxide that warms the planet.

"We are all desirous of doing it," he says. "The issue is how do we move the technology forward for carbon capture and storage; it's in its infancy stage."

Making that happen is also part of the Obama plan.

Ambitious goals for new energy regimes have a poor performance record — "energy independence" has been an unfulfilled presidential promise for decades. But Obama's plan has one thing going for it: It's based in part on the work of John Podesta, a former energy consultant who is now the head of Obama's transition team.

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