Green Tech And Obama: How It Went During His First Term

Reduce carbon pollution with cap and trade program

Curb the enthusiasm for greenhouse gases

There was great optimism at the start of the Obama administration that the 111th Congress would finally pass comprehensive climate change and clean-energy legislation. In June 2009 the House fulfilled its responsibility by passing Reps. Henry Waxman (D-CA) and Ed Markey’s (D-MA) American Clean Energy and Security Act with bipartisan support. It would have cut carbon pollution by at least 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020, while reducing oil use and creating hundreds of thousands of clean energy jobs. Unfortunately, the Senate was unable to pass the similar American Power Act, drafted by Sens. John Kerry (D-MA) and Joe Lieberman (I-CT). This failure occurred because the worst unemployment in 30 years inhibited enough senators that it was impossible to muster a super-majority of 60 votes needed to pass the bill. The jobless rate in 2009 and 2010 was 50 percent higher compared to the time periods when most major environmental laws passed between 1970 and 2009. In addition, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) insisted that his caucus oppose all legislation supported by Democrats. Finally, Big Oil and coal companies, along with other special interests, spent more than $500 million in lobbying and advertising to ensure enough opposition to defeat the bill.

Despite this disappointment, the Energy Information Administration recently concluded that the United States has reduced its carbon pollution by 9 percent below 2005 levels— halfway to the 2020 goal of the 17 percent reduction below 2005 levels set in these bills. The reduction in carbon pollution is due to emission reductions from motor vehicles (see “Cleaner cars” section) and lower electricity demand. The Energy Information Administration projects, however, that carbon pollution from the energy sector will begin to rise in 2017 without additional action.

In 2012 the Obama administration proposed a carbon pollution standard for new power plants that would allow only half the emissions compared to an uncontrolled plant. That standard must be finalized to slow the growth of emissions. The administration must also adopt pollution limits on existing power plants, which emit one-third of all climate pollution in the United States.

Establish national renewable electricity program

The answer is blowing in the wind (and shining in the sun)

Thirty states and the District of Columbia have renewable (or alternative) electricity (or portfolio) standards that require utilities to generate a certain portion of their electricity from wind, solar, or other renewable energy sources. A renewable electricity standard was included in both the American Clean Energy and Security Act and the American Power Act in the 111th Congress.

obama solar power

image via the White House

Since neither bill became law, in 2011 President Obama proposed a clean-energy standard that would require utilities to generate 80 percent of their electricity from no- or low-carbon pollution sources by 2035. In 2012 Senate Energy Committee Chair Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) introduced such a bill, but it was never voted on.

Despite these setbacks, however, the combination of renewable energy investments in the Recovery Act, concerted administration efforts to site solar projects on appropriate public lands, existing tax incentives, and state standards led to the doubling of renewable electricity generation under President Obama. Nationwide wind electricity doubled to 50 gigawatts, enough to power every home in Alabama, Colorado, Connecticut, Nevada, Virginia, and Wisconsin.

Bridge loans to auto companies to prevent bankruptcy and produce more fuel-efficient cars

Bridge loans to the 21st century

When President Obama took office both General Motors and Chrysler teetered on the brink of bankruptcy. Despite some public and congressional opposition, the president provided loans to the automakers to prevent their collapse and provide them with time to restructure.

One of the stipulations of the auto bailout was that the companies had to develop aggressive plans to return to viability by investing in energy-efficient cars. Both companies agreed to move toward a more fuel-efficient fleet. In a March 2009 press statement President Barack Obama said the landmark agreement would create “a 21st century auto industry that is creating new jobs, unleashing new prosperity, and manufacturing the fuel-efficient cars and trucks that will carry us towards an energy-independent future.”

In addition to the successful bridge loans, other major Obama administration policies helped the auto industry and the nation by creating jobs, reducing oil use, saving families money, and cutting pollution. These policies included modern fuel economy standards, investments in research of alternatively fueled vehicles, retooling facilities to manufacture cleaner cars, and incentives for consumers to buy more fuel-efficient vehicles.

In addition to returning General Motors and Chrysler to profitability, GM announced on January 4, 2013, that it is the first automaker to sell 1 million cars in one year that get 30 miles per gallon.

Establish federal energy-efficiency resources standard

Pick the low-hanging energy fruit

Policies encouraging energy efficiency enjoyed bipartisan support over the past four years, and a number of landmark pieces of efficiency legislation were advanced in both houses of Congress only to languish along with the stalled climate legislation. An Energy Efficiency Resource Standard, which requires utilities to reduce energy use, was included in the American Clean Energy and Security Act. The Senate’s American Clean Energy Leadership Act had standards for energy efficiency, including strong new building codes and significant investments in industry, utilities, homes, and offices. Likewise the bipartisan Home Star, Rural Star, and Building Star bills created incentives for efficiency upgrades. The first two bills (Home Star and Rural Star) passed the House in the 111th Congress but were not voted on in the Senate. At the conclusion of the just completed 112th Congress, a modest energy-efficiency bill became law. That bill, the American Energy Manufacturing Technical Corrections Act, will modernize some efficiency standards for appliances, and study efficiency strategies employed by businesses and the federal government.

Despite congressional inaction on nearly all energy-efficiency legislation, the Obama administration provided leadership through other avenues. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, for example, included a historic investment of $14.5 billion in energy efficiency measures alone. President Obama repeatedly used his executive authority to promote energy efficiency. The Better Buildings Initiative made a combined federal-private commitment of $4 billion for efficiency upgrades on federal buildings. Executive Order 13514 complemented these efforts, requiring that all new federal buildings achieve “net zero” energy usage by 2030. And new federal building construction must meet guiding principles for sustainability. In the near term, 15 percent of the existing federal building stock must meet these principles by 2015.

Adopt reforms to ease rehabilitation and siting of transmission lines

Green the wires

The comprehensive House and Senate bills that failed to pass in the 111th Congress included provisions to ease the siting and construction of electricity transmission lines. Such reforms are essential to ease the transmission of wind or solar generated electricity from rural areas where it’s generated to urban areas where it is consumed.

Despite this failure, administration policies in the first term helped modernize the power grid and made electricity transmission more efficient. The Recovery Act, passed in February 2009, has invested $4 billion in efforts to modernize the electricity grid. The Department of Energy reports that customers are “experiencing fewer outages, faster power restoration when outages do occur, more efficient operations, and cost savings” due to these investments.

The Energy Information Administration reports that 36 million electricity customers had “smart meters” by August 2012. The agency says that these meters “support demand response and distributed generation, can improve reliability, and also provide information that consumers can use to save money by managing their use of electricity.”

The president also created an Interagency Rapid Response Team for Transmission, which “aims to improve the overall quality and timeliness of electric transmission infrastructure permitting, review, and consultation by the Federal government on both Federal and non‐Federal lands.”

In 2011 the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission used its existing authority to encourage the use of power lines that will carry renewable energy. Richard Caperton, Director of Clean Energy Investment at CAP, concluded:

[The] FERC’s new rule does two big things that will lead to new transmission lines: It strengthens regional planning processes and clarifies rules on who will pay for new lines… Broad cost allocation can make it easier to build important new lines… FERC’s rule instructs planners to consider certain goals, which will change which lines are prioritized. Ultimately, Order 1000 will give more priority to lines that serve renewable energy and will make those lines more affordable.

Invest in clean energy research, development, and deployment

Rise of the new machines

The first Obama administration invested $90 billion in clean-energy projects—far more than any previous administration. This investment included support for research, development, and deployment for new and emerging technologies.

In addition to previously noted programs, the investment in clean-energy projects included $400 million for the Advanced Research Project Agency-Energy, or ARPA-E, for “high-risk, high-reward efforts to develop transformational energy technologies…[including] 60 cutting-edge research projects in 25 states.” Nearly $17 billion was spent on projects under the Department of Energy’s Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy office. A special program (Section 1603) was created to assist companies with solar projects even if the companies could not use existing tax credits. The Advanced Energy Project Credit program (48c) helped industrial facilities become more energy efficient or employ renewable energy.


This tally of the Obama administration’s first-term accomplishments is quite impressive despite congressional failure to pass essential legislation to reduce carbon pollution and establish a renewable electricity standard. Nonetheless, the administration successfully adopted policies to protect public health from air pollution, lower oil consumption, and create jobs. The administration must continue this progress in its second term by building on these successes.

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The Center for American Progress is an independent nonpartisan educational institute dedicated to improving the lives of Americans through progressive ideas and action. Building on the achievements of progressive pioneers such as Teddy Roosevelt and Martin Luther King, our work addresses 21st-century challenges such as energy, national security, economic growth and opportunity, immigration, education, and health care. We develop new policy ideas, critique the policy that stems from conservative values, challenge the media to cover the issues that truly matter, and shape the national debate.

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