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Can Obama's clean energy plan save the climate?

In a major economic speech Thursday at George Mason University, President-elect Barack Obama called for doubling domestic production of alternative energy over the next three years.

By Blogger for The Christian Science Monitor / January 12, 2009

Wind turbines generate electricity at a 400-megawatt facility in Peetz, Colo.

UPI Photo/Gary C. Caskey/NEWSCOM/FILE

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In a major economic speech Thursday at George Mason University, President-elect Barack Obama called for doubling domestic production of alternative energy over the next three years.

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As Monitor reporter Peter Grier notes, Mr. Obama's American Recovery and Reinvestment Plan – a stimulus package expected to total at least $800 billion – will put energy front and center. The plan includes boosting the efficiency of homes and government buildings and kick-starting domestic clean energy. To quote from Obama's speech:

To finally spark the creation of a clean energy economy, we will double the production of alternative energy in the next three years.  We will modernize more than 75 percent of federal buildings and improve the energy efficiency of 2 million American homes, saving consumers and taxpayers billions on our energy bills.  In the process, we will put Americans to work in new jobs that pay well and can’t be outsourced – jobs building solar panels and wind turbines; constructing fuel-efficient cars and buildings; and developing the new energy technologies that will lead to even more jobs, more savings, and a cleaner, safer planet in the bargain.

Obama also pledged to develop a national smart energy grid that would "save us money, protect our power sources from blackout or attack, and deliver clean, alternative forms of energy to every corner of our nation."

Obama's change.gov site gives the details of the plan, which include $150 billion over 10 years in clean-energy funding and a requirement that 25 percent of American electricity come from renewable sources by 2025

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Grist's Kate Sheppard reports that big environmental groups are for the most part pleased. Her story includes quotes from the leaders of the Sierra Club ("win-win"), the Alliance for Climate Protection ("a crucial first step"), Friends of the Earth ("a refreshing break from the past"), and the Blue Green Alliance ("the smart way to think about economic development").

Ms. Sheppard notes, however, that the plan does not include specific provisions for funding mass transit, an omission that worries some environmentalists.

As CNN reports, some key Democrats have criticized Obama's stimulus plan, saying that it relies too heavily on tax breaks instead of direct investment. At Climate Progress, Joseph Romm, a former Clinton energy adviser, cites a story in Environment & Energy Daily that notes that, of the plan's expected $300 billion in tax breaks, only $10 billion go toward clean energy, a ratio that Mr. Romm calls "distinctly unimpressive."

Others are wondering if Obama's clean-energy goals are even possible. Reuters reports that Rex Tillerson, the CEO of Exxon Mobil, believes that doubling domestic production of renewables in three years will be "very challenging," in part because he believes the United States cannot double its output of biofuels and lacks the manufacturing capacity to build enough wind turbines.

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