January 25, 2011

Initial SOTU Reactions

I spent much of my day today focused on the New York Times article about a new RAND report (pdf) saying that DOD derives pretty much no utility from alternative fuels. I think you’ll all suspect that this angered me, and I found the report problematic. (Deputy Assistant Secretary for Navy Energy Tom Hicks held a live chat within hours, saying that the Navy disagrees with the RAND report’s findings and describing aspects of the report as “misrepresentations” and “factual errors.”) So, this was my day’s backdrop going into State of the Union listening mode, keen to hear the President's energy plans.

Most of the speech was very good, albeit not goosebump-inducing at any point. As I was cooking dinner until close to its start I hadn’t read the early leak of the transcript. I was glad to hear that innovation and infrastructure improvement, including for energy technology, were major themes. Many people reading this blog likely shared my yearning for a bit more on security and foreign policy (but then again, I'm not a victim of the recession as so many Americans have been, so that yearning is highly tempered). A few things brought broad smiles to my face:

~Specific energy goals ("by 2035, 80% of America’s electricity will come from clean energy sources" and "become the first country to have 1 million electric vehicles on the road by 2015"). One thing we hear consistently from the business community is the need for strong, consistent signals in order for them to make confident investments and sound decisions. This is a solid start.

~"I’m asking Congress to eliminate the billions in taxpayer dollars we currently give to oil companies. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but they’re doing just fine on their own. So instead of subsidizing yesterday’s energy, let’s invest in tomorrow’s." Right. Freaking. On. It's also worth noting a recent Washington Post op-ed floating the idea of eliminating *all* subsidies and leveling the playing field, and instead investing mostly in basic R&D while letting competition work its magic. Time to discuss this idea more seriously.

~This one is intriguing: "In the coming months, my administration will develop a proposal to merge, consolidate, and reorganize the federal government in a way that best serves the goal of a more competitive America. I will submit that proposal to Congress for a vote – and we will push to get it passed."

GREAT! Given the night's themes, I have to assume the Department of Energy will be a prime target for consideration. If you've never looked at the budget for DOE, do it now. Then compare to its organizational chart. This poor agency was cobbled together with the remains of several offices that weren't really working out so well, including the country's first several energy czars. Should energy efficiency & renewable energy grantmaking really be under the same roof as NNSA? The National Labs seriously need to be tapped for their enormous potential if we're going to meet the energy goals the President set, and this even coming from a gal who emerged from a forested area of Oak Ridge covered in ticks last time she visited; can this be done when so much of the DOE leadership time & mandate are directed at its nuclear weapons side of the house? Honestly, it's impressive that DOE has not been a flaming trainwreck given its bizarre structure, mission and history. I'll be watching anxiously to see what happens with this reorganization proposal.

We'll post if we have further reactions, but I'm calling it a night for now. Can't wait to hear & see the range of reactions in the coming days.