By the time you read this, President Barack Obama will have blown into the Penn State campus in State College and blown right out again.
He was there to ballyhoo the work being led by the institution’s researchers at the Energy Innovation Hub in Philly. We can count our lucky stars that his rapid passage didn’t blow out all the kerosene lamps. Back to the lamps in a moment.
The EIH project, according to the Huffington Post, will receive more than $129 million in federal funds over the next five years. You will remember that Obama talked a lot in his Jan. 25 State of the Union address about the importance of clean energy technology for creating jobs and protecting the planet.
In a White House press briefing held Wednesday, administration staffers released the President’s talking points, engagingly titled “President Obama’s Plan to Win the Future by Making American Businesses More Energy Efficient through the ’Better Buildings Initiative.’”Simply put, Obama planned to use his visit to Happy Valley to lay out his administration’s vision for “winning the future,” a phrase that I predict will wear exceedingly thin by the time it is discarded.
One of the means by which We The People will win that future by “investing in innovative, clean energy technologies and doubling the share of electricity from clean energy sources by 2035.” In his own response to the President’s State of the Union speech, specifically the lofty goal of doubling clean energy resources by that date, Alexander Cockburn pointed out that 2035 is five presidential terms after Obama’s last conceivable day in office, in 2016. Certainly Cockburn is correct in guessing that any president’s hold on policy is likely to be a bit tenuous after the passage of nearly a quarter century.
But I would argue that it is a bit unfair to lay the entire burden on Obama. The best ideas in the world cannot catch fire if they don’t land in the proper tinder. That’s the real question, isn’t it?
A media hand-out Wednesday stated that Obama wants to improve energy efficiency in commercial buildings, which suck up about 20 percent of all the energy in the country’s economy. “Improving energy efficiency in our buildings can create jobs, save money, reduce our dependence on foreign oil, and make our air cleaner,” the hand-out read. The goals listed included: “Achieve a 20 percent improvement in energy efficiency by 2020; Reduce companies’ and business owners’ energy bills by about $40 billion per year; and saving energy by reforming outdated incentives and challenging the private sector to act.”Oops. What was that? “Challenging the private sector to act?”Now, back to the kerosene lamps.
I would be willing to bet that when the “private sector” was confronted with the incandescent light bulb after Thomas Edison invented the thing in the 1870s, quite a lot of them dragged their heels, complaining about the imposition of making the switch to electricity and all that the modernization entailed. Some of them, doubtless, sat squinting in the smoky light, muttering. An ad seen on TV lately shows a woman griping about the government telling her what she can and can’t buy in the grocery store, or what light bulbs to buy. We’re going to hear a lot more grousing about it, because in September, G.E., the last manufacturer of incandescent bulbs in the U.S. shut down, putting something like 200 people out of work.
That happened in part because of an energy conservation measure passed by Congress in 2007 – during the administration of George W. Bush, by the by – that essentially banned regular old-fashioned incandescent bulbs by 2014. The idea was that the ban would spur the development of new, low-energy, low-waste light bulbs that would save a bunch of energy and greenhouse-gas emissions. Enter the new compact fluorescent, or CFLs, which were developed by American engineers way back in the 1970s. But no American manufacturer makes them, because the CFLs with their twisty glass shapes require more hand labor, so most of them get built in China. The CFL bulbs were deemed by the executives at GE and every other bulb-maker in the US to be too expensive because American workers make too much money. I’m not even going to bother digging up the compensation packages for GE executives, if you take my point.
So, the fate of light bulbs in the US of A is partly a fault of the free-market system that allows top management to be given – I won’t say “earned” – huge incomes while it ships jobs overseas. But that’s only part of the problem. Look at it this way: Edison patented the first commercially feasible incandescent light bulb in 1879. The bulbs that are only just now beginning to fade away have not changed significantly in their design. And now, there is a new design, one that uses less power, meaning it produces fewer pollutants in creating the power for it, and produces less heat. And, like the Edison bulb, was developed here, by Americans.
But we can’t crank up enough brain power to figure out a way to keep those jobs here, and instead whine that maybe we can just keep the old bulbs? It seems that the “Can Do” attitude of Americans has turned into “Done Enough.”That’s the real slope Obama’s dream has to climb.
The technology, I suspect, is relatively easy. Getting enough of us off our duffs to do something about it will be the real challenge.
(To hear President Obama talk about his vision for the a greener tomorrow click on Rock The Capital.)
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