Angering critics and thrilling the green industry, President Obama set a benchmark that the United States should derive 80 percent of its energy from "clean" sources by 2035, saying, "instead of subsidizing yesterday's energy, let's invest in tomorrow's." Although much can change in 24 years, right now, reaching that 80 percent goal seems to mean choosing among five options: wind, water, nuclear, clean coal and natural gas.

The National Journal's Coral Davenport notes that the clean energy goal may appeal to both sides of the aisle. "Leading moderate Republicans such as Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Alaska's Lisa Murkowski, the ranking member on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, have said they could support a 'clean-energy standard' that includes nuclear and other low-emitting sources, " he says. Further, Davenport notes that Obama's embrace of clean coal and nuclear energy could bring in support from potentially recalcitrant Democrats worried that clean coal and nuclear energy may be left in the dust and "pave the way for a modest breakthrough."

So assuming all the necessary political support is in place, what would it take to deliver Obama's moonshot?

  • Kill Coal  bNet's Kirsten Korosec's analysis of U.S. energy sources shows that coal, long derided as a filthy, unacceptable energy source by critics, meets 45 percent of the country's energy demands. If consumption patterns stay static, Korosec says coal will still be a heavy lifter by 2035--dropping only 2 percentage points in our energy use portfolio. "In other words, we would need to decrease our coal use (for electricity) by some 20 percent," she writes, in order to have 80% of energy be form "clean" sources.
  • Amp Up Efficiency  A world of electric cars would be great, but FrumForum's Jim Dipeso points out that we're at risk of blowing the grid if everyone plugs in instead of fueling up. Citing a 2009 McKinsey & Co study, Dipeso says focusing on efficiency could "drive down total U.S. energy consumption by about 9 percent of today’s levels by 2020, yielding some $700 billion in net savings."
  • Think Smaller  Daily Kos's Meteor Blades likes Obama's enthusiasm, but wants a more realistic benchmark. This is not just because by the time the US reaches Obama's goal Blades' "youngest grandchild will have already voted in two presidential elections by then," but because the sheer scale of the effort deserves a milestone. Blades's proposal: shoot to have wind energy provide 15 percent of America's energy and have 20 million solar roofs installed. Hitting these mini goals would mean the US, which produced 10,000 megawatts capacity of wind power in 2009, would have to seriously pick up the pace to reach 210,000 megawatts of capacity in ten years. Blades says it is doable as long as there is determination: "The Chinese installed more than 15,000 megawatts in 2010, a 62 percent increase over the previous year. They're planning to do it again this year." Tack on the goal of 20 million solar roofs, and Blades says solar energy could meet 20 percent of our energy demands in ten years.
  • The Mandate Issue  Politico's Josh Voorhees points to House Republicans like Fred Upton "who see any mandate, even one with nuclear and coal goodies, as nothing more than another layer of government bureaucracy. 'Energy independence is not achieved through government dependence.' Upton said." In addition, some Democrats like Jeff Bingamen oppose "mixing mandates for solar and wind power with coal and nuclear requirements." Apparently Bingamen "will 'seriously consider' a bill including the president's mixed mandate, so long as he is confident the push for coal and nukes won’t come at the expense of renewables"