NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


March 6, 2009

During his address to Congress last week, President Obama declared, "We will double this nation's supply of renewable energy in the next three years."

While that statement -- along with his pledge to impose a "cap on carbon pollution" -- drew applause, we should slow down for a moment and get realistic about this country's energy future, says Robert Bryce, the managing editor of Energy Tribune.  Consider two factors that are too-often overlooked: George W. Bush's record on renewables, and the problem of scale.

By promising to double our supply of renewables, Obama is only trying to keep pace with his predecessor, says Bryce:

  • From 2005 to 2007, the former Texas oil man oversaw a near-doubling of the electrical output from solar and wind power.
  • And between 2007 and 2008, output from those sources grew by another 30 percent.

President Bush's record aside, the key problem facing President Obama, and anyone else advocating a rapid transition away from the hydrocarbons that have dominated the world's energy mix since the dawn of the Industrial Age, is the same issue that dogs every alternative energy idea: scale.

Let's start by deciphering exactly what Obama includes in his definition of "renewable" energy:

  • If he's including hydropower, which now provides about 2.4 percent of America's total primary energy needs, then the president clearly has no concept of what he is promising.
  • Hydro now provides more than 16 times as much energy as wind and solar power combined.
  • Yet more dams are being dismantled than built. Since 1999, more than 200 dams in the U.S. have been removed.

If Obama is only counting wind power and solar power as renewables, then his promise is clearly doable.  But the unfortunate truth is that even if he matches Bush's effort by doubling wind and solar output by 2012, the contribution of those two sources to America's overall energy needs will still be almost inconsequential, says Bryce.

Source: Robert Bryce, "Let's Get Real About Renewable Energy," Wall Street Journal, March 4, 2009.

For text: 


Browse more articles on Environment Issues