Challenges Ahead For Obama's Energy Plan Barack Obama made energy, especially green energy, a big-ticket item in his presidential campaign. In the midst of a financial crisis, that is a lot of promising, especially when "dirty" energy remains the cheapest in the short run.
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Challenges Ahead For Obama's Energy Plan

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Challenges Ahead For Obama's Energy Plan

Challenges Ahead For Obama's Energy Plan

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During his campaign, President-elect Barack Obama vowed to usher in a new age of green energy. Here's what he promised in his acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention in August.

(Soundbite of Barack Obama's acceptance speech, Grant Park, Chicago)

President-elect BARACK OBAMA: And I'll invest $150 billion over the next decade in affordable, renewable sources of energy, wind power and solar power and the next generation of biofuels, an investment that will lead to new industries and five million new jobs that pay well and can't be outsourced.

BLOCK: For the next few weeks, we're offering up our own memos to the president-elect about the challenges the new administration is facing. Today NPR's Christopher Joyce reports on how the new pie of green energy might get divided.

CHRISTOPHER JOYCE: In politics, only the winner has to keep campaign promises. Now energy experts want Barack Obama to know what it will take for him to keep his to remake the energy economy and how hard that will be. With the country knee-deep in financial quicksand, Obama will have to find a way to do it on the cheap. For Kateri Callahan, who runs the advocacy group Alliance to Save Energy, there is a way.

Ms. KATERI CALLAHAN (Director, Alliance to Save Energy): Energy efficiency, which has always been sort of an afterthought or a stepchild in energy debates, is, I believe, going to be front and center in the Obama administration. He cites energy efficiency as the cheapest, the cleanest, and the fastest way to meet growing energy demand and tackle climate.

JOYCE: That means getting people to buy washing machines and televisions that use less electricity or more fuel-efficient cars. But it will take more than that to make a big dent in the emissions of greenhouse gases that are warming the planet now. Callahan says what the candidates wouldn't. It will take sacrifice and maybe something like a tax. For example, Obama will have to put a higher price on fuels that emit carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

Ms. CALLAHAN: And that, in effect, will be a tax on energy, and it will raise prices which will in fact change behavior and will force decisions on energy sources for the future.

JOYCE: Those energy sources for the future will include more wind power. Wind is the fastest growing form of green energy. It got there, says Greg Wetstone of The American Wind Energy Association, not because of sacrifice, but a tax break for wind farms. But Wetstone says to reach Obama's goals, the country needs more than tax break carrots. What's needed is something mandatory, something like a renewable portfolio standard.

Mr. GREG WETSTONE (American Wind Energy Association): Utilities in each state would have to provide a certain percentage of their electricity from renewable sources like wind or solar or geothermal.

JOYCE: President-elect Obama has an energy plan that demands just that. His plan requires that 10 percent of electricity comes from renewable sources by 2012. He'll have to convince utilities and the power industries to go along, though most have rejected such mandatory requirements in the past. And there are some pesky facts about alternative forms of energy that Obama's administration will have to accommodate. The wind blows harder and the sun shines brighter in the West mainly and in the Great Plains. That's not where most of the consumers are.

Mr. WETSTONE: We need a better system to carry the electricity from the renewable areas to where people live. We're talking about power lines, transmission lines. We're talking about a green interstate transmission highway.

JOYCE: A new transmission grid is part of Obama's plan. But energy experts want Obama to understand that a new grid, like everything else in his energy plan, is a huge and expensive undertaking. And it won't be easy to cast off the energy system we've got now. Michael Morris, president of the mega utility American Electric Power, wants to remind Obama that over half the utilities in the country still burn coal.

Mr. MICHAEL MORRIS (President, American Electric Power): The world is going to burn coal, make no mistake about that. India is going to burn coal, China is going to burn coal, Russia is going to burn coal, and the United States is going to burn coal.

JOYCE: Obama's plan says coal can stay for the moment, so long as it can be cleaned up. There are technologies that could allow utilities to remove carbon dioxide from coal before they burn it and bury the CO2. But Morris, who supports clean coal reserves, says that's a ways off.

Mr. MORRIS: We are all desirous of doing it. The issue is how do we move the technology forward for carbon capture and storage? It's in its infancy stage. Utilities are bringing it from the laboratory into reality.

JOYCE: As campaign promises go, the green energy plan does have at least one thing going for it. It draws heavily on an energy manifesto written at a think tank called the Center for American Progress. One of the authors of that manifesto was John Podesta. Podesta now runs the Obama transition team. Christopher Joyce, NPR News.

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