Perhaps no President before has pushed the U.S. to adopt and create new forms of energy as strongly as President Obama. In his 2010 state of the union address, Obama declared, "the nation that leads the world in creating new energy sources, will be the nation that leads the twenty- first century global economy."
The recent bankruptcy of solar panel maker Solyndra, a recipient of a $550 million government guaranteed loan, may put a crimp in those plans. Not only is it a public relations disaster for the White House, but critics now question the viability of renewable energy businesses and the role of government to support it.
In the accompanying interview Daniel Yergin, author of The Quest, the follow up to his Pulitzer Prize winning book The Prize, discusses the future of U.S. energy policy.
While not coming down one way or the other on the Solyndra situation, Yergin does believe strongly that the government should back new forms of energy. "Supporting R&D, supporting basic science, supporting the engineers and scientists who will bring change, I think that's a very important role," he says. "It's something that the department of energy has historically done."
Venture capitalists have poured money into cleantech in the last few years hoping to hit on the next big thing. "Investment in the U. S. cleantech industry went from $286 million in 2001 to $3.7 billion in 2010—a rise of more than ten times. In 2010 cleantech represented 17 percent of total VC investment in the United States," Yergin writes in The Quest. That kind of investment, Yergin says, has helped the U.S. remain the leader "in terms of innovation in energy."
The greatest gains in energy technology in the last decade, however have not come in the form of renweable wind and solar, Yergin notes. That distinction belongs to the natural gas market, where new hydraulic fracturing technology known as "fracking" has created the potential to extract massive reserves of natural gas locked in shale deposits. Earlier this year, President Obama said those natural gas reserves could keep America running for 100 years.
But critics claim fracking contaminates the water supply and leads to other environmental hazards. Yergin recently worked on a Department of Energy committee investigating the use of fracking. The group recommended more safeguards but did not call for the practice to cease.
In the end, Yergin says, the key to keeping the U.S. energy more independent in the future is to pursue a wide range of energy options. "We do need this kind of diversified resilient portfolio," he says to ensure economic progress and national security.
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- Daniel Yergin