Obama must focus on energy independence

Thirty years ago then-president Jimmy Carter installed solar panels on the White House roof to heat water for the staff eating area. He said it demonstrated the nation’s move toward "true energy security and abundant, readily available energy supplies."


When Ronald Reagan became president, Carter’s solar panels were removed. They were stored until 1990 when they were sent to Unity College in Maine, where, with Hollywood fanfare, they were used to heat water in the cafeteria until they stopped working about 2005. They are now an exhibit in the Carter Library in Georgia.

Three decades later, in another effort to push the nation toward energy independence, President Obama is touting wind power. Traveling to a wind turbine tower plant in Newton, Iowa, on Earth Day on Wednesday, he said renewable energy will help the environment, make the nation safer and create jobs.

Obama said, "The nation that leads the world in creating new sources of clean energy will be the nation that leads the 21st century global economy. America can be that nation. America must be that nation."

Obama wants to spend $150 billion on renewable energy over the next ten years. The White House economic stimulus package passed by Congress has $23 billion for renewable energy.

Drive around California and you will see solvent solar-panel firms promising energy tax credits upon installation. The panels are terrifically expensive (upwards of $10,000) but work better than Carter’s.

Detroit, desperately trying to stave off bankruptcy, is touting a new generation of electric cars.

The nuclear energy lobby, beating its head against a concrete wall trying unsuccessfully to build new plants, thinks it has a new lease on life because of Obama.

The U.S. oil and gas industry is pleased with Obama’s interest in boosting short-term production.

Industry is banking on Obama’s "cap-and-trade" plan to let businesses swap credits and debits for carbon dioxide emissions even though critics complain it’s a back-door tax increase.

What’s the scoop on energy independence anyway? Are we serious this time?

The truth is not clear. When the price of a gallon of gasoline reached $4, we panicked. We conserved. We bought fuel-efficient cars. We complained. When a gallon of gas slithered back down to $2 a gallon we were relieved and returned slowly to our profligate ways.

But the cost of oil, and gasoline, is headed back up. Woe is us.

Let’s look at Detroit. Without producing affordable, fuel-efficient cars consumers want to buy, the U.S. auto industry will not survive. The federal government is trying to salvage Detroit. (Sadly, the mojo is not looking good with this rather pointless back-and-forth bailout stuff, but at least they’re trying.) But every effort to make the U.S. a leader in enormously expensive electric-car batteries that power a car for more than 100 miles has failed. The country that solves the battery problem will rule the world of new car production.

Here’s what Obama should do:

— Follow through. With so many problems on his plate, he has to instruct his Cabinet secretaries and his staff to remind him to keep the pressure on for energy independence and workable batteries.

— Keep us focused and provide real-life examples that work. Show us how the Obama family is realistically striving to cut energy use. (Ok. Ok. Air Force One and 26-vehicle motorcades don’t count.) But those Wal-Mart green ads are not bad.

— Let us know about legitimate scientific breakthroughs. We need hope.

— Be honest and realistic. Don’t hype anything. We’ll see right through it. Our love affair with "being green" has been off-again, on-again; we’re jaded.

No matter what we may think about Obama’s politics, he is right about this: If America doesn’t get its act together on energy independence, we truly will become a second-rate power. We have to pressure Congress.

No more lip service or solar panels that don’t work. We need Congress to push state-of-the-art technology in all kinds of energy — nuclear, wind, solar. Let’s really go green and not just for a day.

And let’s make sure Obama’s wind initiative is not just about hot air that floats nobody’s balloon.

(Scripps Howard columnist Ann McFeatters has covered the White House and national politics since 1986. E-mail amcfeatters(at)nationalpress.com.)


  1. CheckerboardStrangler

    Ann McFeatters is speaking on subjects about which she has little or no knowledge. Carter’s solar panels were WATER heating panels, whereas the 10 thousand dollar panels McFeatters references are commercial SOLAR ELECTRIC, that is, they are PHOTO-VOLTAIC.
    It appears that Ann McFeatters probably has never been near a solar panel in her life, and might have been in diapers during the Carter administration.
    The reason Carter’s solar water heating panels stopped working is because they started to leak, and it should be noted that these leaks are repairable, and the panels functioned far beyond their warranted and certified useful lifetime, thus they would have paid off handsomely on their investment had they remained in service and not been moved several times instead.
    A solar water heating panel is basically a black plastic or fiberglass panel filled with water, which flows through on its way between the storage tank and the faucet.
    A solar electric panel is an array of photovoltaic cells with wires attached to them.
    Different type solar panels have different costs.
    A thin film array comes out to about two dollars a watt while the new “Nanosolar” printed panels are supposed to level off at about a dollar a watt, while standard selenium-silicon panels, the original type, are about three dollars a watt.
    Solar electric technology is moving at the pace that video moved at right after the VCR was invented, with the predicted tipping point where the cost is equal to that of conventionally generated power is roughly the same looming on the horizon and approaching fast.
    Just as television moved from a seven inch monochrome round screen to color, to videotape, and finally to digital transmission and high definition, solar electric is rapidly changing, and Moore’s Law shows that the transition from novelty to necessity is many time faster than either TV, computers or even electric automotive transport.

    Comparing our current efforts to rid ourselves of addiction to horribly inefficient and politically insecure energy sources to Carter’s thirty year old water panels is disingenuous but more importantly, misinformed.
    I am reminded of a 1940’s Washington Post science article that announced the “invention of a new type of transistor tube” by Bell Laboratory engineers Barnard and Shockley.
    The whole point of the transistor’s invention is that it REPLACED the vacuum tube!

    And Ann, several car companies broke the 100 mile electric barrier a long time ago. The big barrier is charge time and charge source availability versus onboard charging as a range extender. My personal hunch is that onboard generation to extend range will win out because no one wants to be left stranded, and fast charge times will ALWAYS shorten battery life, so a compromise must be achieved.

    Study technology or stay away from articles that deal with it. Being a poorly informed sideline spectator with something to say and the bully pulpit with which to say it muddles the mix and makes you look bad.
    But more importantly, it impedes the one thing we need most of all in this country today….PROGRESS.

    Stay out of the way of progress please, Ann.

  2. Carl Nemo

    Thanks CheckerBoardStr for the critique of Ann McFeatters article and the update concerning current technology when it comes to solar arrays, water heating arrays and auto mileage breakthroughs with reference to electric vehicles.

    I’m a fierce proponent for producing energy via massive solar tracking arrays to be located in our Southwest deserts. My calculations indicate an array of about 225 square miles; ie., nominally 15 miles on a side in area are enough to generate the entire daytime needs for the U.S. and Canada. Of course to have all our eggs in one basket via a single location would be foolish, so the arrays should be distributed throughout the sunny regions. Nighttime needs can even be taken care of by state of the art super-capacitors and massive flywheel technologies that are currently available to store energy for dark period usage.

    Obviously big oil, coal and even hydroelectric interests aren’t too keen on being taken out by such basic free energy technology minus the cost of creating the initial infrastructure. We already own the land since 80 percent of most Western lands are in government holdings. This tech implementation is something that simply “needs” to be done…period!

    The shading provided by the arrays and structures will also provide some interesting habitat for some species too.

    Carl Nemo **==

  3. woody188

    When a gallon of gas slithered back down to $2 a gallon we were relieved and returned slowly to our profligate ways.

    I have not seen any evidence of this. In fact, consumption is still down and oil is still stock piled at all time highs.

  4. sherry

    Woody, you are correct. The last stats I saw were Americans were still driving less. Of course that could be due to the number of unemployed and lets not forget about those who have no wheels because they have been repossessed.
    A local newscast asked people if they were driving more now that gas was lower, under $2. Everyone said they had changed their driving habits for good. One man said if we change our habits back, demand goes up, and so does the price.

  5. CheckerboardStrangler

    Woody is referring to something called “demand destruction” and the oil industry is well aware of the effects of demand destruction.
    Unfortunately you can probably guess their response, which of course I do not blame them for.

    When oil companies see demand destruction due to pricing, they respond by cutting back production, which of course drives the prices BACK UP AGAIN.

    So, what we’re witnessing is demand destruction and the dead cat bounce, which really doesn’t involve a dead cat at all.

    So once again Ann McFeatters had it wrong.
    We slithered back to our old complacency, to be sure.
    No one WANTS to go visit the dentist.

    But we’re NOT driving more.
    No place to go when you don’t have a job and you don’t have any money.