In Bay Area, Obama Announces New Solar, Conservation Programs

Obama schmoozes at Walmart after his speech | Screen capture: White House

In Mountain View today, President Barack Obama announced a set of new executive actions the White House will be taking to promote the domestic solar industry and energy conservation programs. The actions include spending an additional $2 billion to make federal buildings more energy-efficient, and providing funding for solar job training programs at community colleges across the country.

The initiatives come in the form of executive actions, said the President, due to Congressional intransigence on energy and climate matters. "Unfortunately Congress has not always been as visionary on these issues as we would like," said Obama. "In Washington, we still have a bunch of climate deniers who shout loud, but they're wasting everybody's time in a settled debate."

The announcement was made in a Walmart store in Mountain View. Walmart, which has installed more rooftop solar than any other big-box retailer, is pledging to double its solar installations, though that isn't sparing it from criticism from environmental groups.

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At the event, Obama lauded the environmental achievements of the Mountain View Walmart. In addition to putting solar panels on its roof, said the President, the store had installed more efficient refrigerators, replaced much of its lighting with efficient LEDs, and installed electric vehicle charging stations in its parking lot.

But that doesn't impress everyone: the environmental group Friends of The Earth told Guardian reporter Suzanne Goldenberg, in advance of the event that Walmart shouldn't be held up as an environmental model. "Walmart has both under-reported its greenhouse gas emissions and failed to meet its 2012 targets," the group said.

[Updated to add: criticism of both Walmart's environmental record and of Obama for touting the company as a green leader seems to be mounting.]

Obama's speech frustratingly conflated renewable energy, conservation, and the climate change issue with "energy independence," and he boasted that the U.S. has increased its production of natural gas -- which is not necessarily a great thing -- and of domestic crude oil, which now leads imports. "We're producing more traditional energy," said Obama, "but we're also becoming a leader in the energy sources of the future." A sober approach to the threats of climate change detailed in the National Climate Assessment, released by the White House on Tuesday, would almost certainly include producing less "traditional" fossil fueled energy, not more.

That said, the initiatives announced by Obama today are sweeping and hard to criticize.

There's that $2 billion increase in federal building energy efficiency funds, which doubles the original 2011 allocation. The money will be raised through energy savings at no expected cost to the taxpayer.

There's also increased funding for solar training at community colleges, including California's San Francisco City College, to allow young people to take advantage of contracting jobs in the solar industry.

In addition to Walmart, corporations such as Ikea, Apple, and Yahoo are redoubling their commitment to energy efficiency and solar. Kaiser Permanente is planning to install at least 40 megawatts of solar on its California campuses, while Google, already deeply involved in renewables, is offering a $1 million prize to the engineers who develop what a White House statement calls the "next generation of power inverters" for use with solar panels.

25 state and local governments, nonprofits, and business groups have agreed to join the President's Better Buildings Challenge, which will result in energy efficiency upgrades to a billion square feet of property.

Housing builders and hardware companies are committing to increase the number of solar homes by tens of thousands in the next few years. New housing companies will be building at least 20,000 of those homes, while Home Depot will place home solar learning centers in 1,000 of its stores nationwide to help upgrade existing properties -- almost always the better environmental choice than building from scratch. Three roofing companies have pledged to increase the amount of solar they install, with one, CertainTeed Roofing, committing to 16,000 homes in the next three years.

Dozens of non-profits and agencies that manage low-income housing will be making those homes solar as well, bringing the benefits of the solar revolution to the less-affluent.

And perhaps most importantly, a range of federal policy reforms from Department Of Energy energy efficiency and building code standards to Housing and Urban Development financing programs for low-income housing energy improvements, to a DoE program to replace 500,000 outdoor lights with high-efficiency illumination will definitely have an impact.

The President batted down anticipated criticism of the new initiatives on economic grounds. "Rising sea levels, drought, more wildfires, more severe storms: those aren't good for the economy. Climate change is real and we have to act now."

About the Author

Chris Clarke is a natural history writer and environmental journalist currently at work on a book about the Joshua tree. He lives in Joshua Tree.
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