“Greens should be honest with themselves,” Roberts wrote. “The energy issue is a tough nut to crack for a national politician. Contrary to what a lot of folks seem to think, Obama can’t change the political climate or public opinion with the power of his words. No president, including The One, is willing to get out very far ahead of public opinion; presidents react to it more than they shape it.”
Whatever the case, on Thursday, Obama and Energy Secretary Steven Chu were out west trying to win support of the administration’s energy platform, and it was nice to see local news outlets spotlight contradictions in the “all of the above” strategy. At the Albuquerque Journal, John Fleck pointed out that Chu’s appearance at Sandia National Laboratories’ Solar Thermal Facility made for an “ironic photo op.”
Off to one side was a set of concentrating solar dishes developed by Sandia and Stirling Energy Systems. Stirling filed for bankruptcy last fall, however, when it found it couldn’t compete with cheap photovoltaic panels from China and the plummeting price of natural gas. As one of the national labs that helped improve the hydraulic fracturing processes that gave made gas more affordable, Sandia “was part of Stirling’s undoing.”
Indeed, promoting the development of natural gas and the development of renewable sources of electricity are, to a large extent, at odds with each other. The opposition did not go unnoticed in a Las Vegas Sun article about Obama’s speech at a UPS facility in Sin City on Thursday.
The company had received $5.6 million in stimulus funds to purchase a fleet of trucks that can run on liquefied natural gas (LNG), and to construct a publically accessible LNG refueling station that enables LNG vehicles to travel a natural gas-powered “corridor” between the Port of Long Beach, California, and Salt Lake City. Obama wants to promote similar corridors elsewhere in the nation, but his appearance raised questions about the state of the solar power industry. According to the Sun:
That the president would focus so intently on natural gas in a state like Nevada, which may be implementing the fruits of the product but has little of the resource, is a bit out of the ordinary — in the past, when administration officials have come to Nevada to talk energy, the topic is renewables. Nevada’s sun corridor has made the Silver State a national leader in turning golden rays into an energy resource. Natural gas, though clean, isn’t renewable.
But the unorthodox choice of topic may turn out to be wise in terms of political timing. Just hours before the president touched down in Las Vegas Wednesday night, one of the Las Vegas Valley’s best-known solar panel manufacturers laid off two-thirds of its employees, citing the need to do some “retooling.”
There are concerns about Obama’s LNG-vehicle strategy, of course. The Washington Post’s Brad Plumer questioned whether it could really “get us off oil.” Electric vehicles may play a more pivotal role, he observed:
After all, it’s far more efficient to take natural gas, burn it to generate electricity, and power a bunch of plug-in vehicles, than it would be to fuel up cars and trucks with all that natural gas directly. (That’s because the combustion engines in cars and trucks waste more energy than the modern-day combined-cycle gas turbines that produce electricity.)
Plumer also threw some cold water on Obama’s optimistic State-of-the-Union assertion that American oil production is the highest it’s been in eight years. “Technically, that’s true,” he wrote. “But it’s worth taking a longer view. Since 1970, U.S. oil production has actually been in severe decline — and the recent boom is nowhere near enough to reverse it.” (For more on the production plateau and the end of easy oil, see David Biello’s January 25 article in Scientific American.)
In that light, it wasn’t surprising to read that the president’s “donors want more than Keystone.” According in a well-reported piece by Politico’s Darren Samuelsohn, which quoted a variety of hesitant benefactors:
If Barack Obama thought killing the Keystone XL pipeline would bring a gusher of campaign cash, he’s got another thing coming.