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."

Oops.

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.)