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Obama at Penn State: 'You've Answered the Call' to Energy Innovation

by on February 03, 2011 5:26 PM

The U.S. should move to foster more energy-efficient buildings through tax incentives, government-backed financing and aggressive research, President Barack Obama said Thursday at Penn State.

"Now that may not sound too sexy: energy-efficient buildings," Obama said in Rec Hall, addressing an exuberant crowd estimated at 3,000 people. "But listen. Our homes and our businesses consume 40 percent of the energy we use.

"Think about that," Obama went on. "Everybody focuses on cars and gas prices, and that's understandable. But our homes and businesses ... contribute to 40 percent of the carbon pollution that we produce, and that is contributing to climate change."

The good news, Obama said, is that the U.S. can reverse the trend, cut energy consumption and create jobs in the process.

Much of that work will hinge on energy research led by institutions such as -- and including -- Penn State, the president said. He spoke for about 22 minutes starting at 12:30 p.m.

Obama detailed what he dubbed a Better Buildings Initiative, to be included as part of his upcoming federal budget proposal. Obama said a core goal is to help U.S. businesses save nearly $40 billion a year by reducing their utility expenses.

"That's money that could be spent growing those businesses and hiring new workers," Obama said.

His proposal calls for more effective tax incentives for businesses that make energy-efficient facility upgrades. It also urges more available financing for business owners who want to pursue energy-saving improvements.

Homeowners and businesses "might not have the cash up front" to undertake such projects otherwise, Obama suggested. He wants to make commercial buildings 20 percent more energy-efficient by 2020.

Another element of his initiative would encourage municipal and state governments to rewrite local building codes -- and promote energy efficiency in the process, senior administration officials have said. The proposal also would promote training and tools in energy-related fields, and push business leaders to cut energy use and create energy-related jobs.

The White House has yet to indicate how much these efforts might cost. But administration officials have said that Obama wants to pay for new initiatives by "eliminating spending where we don't need it."

At Rec Hall on Thursday, the president drew cheers when he advocated cuts in subsidies for oil companies.

"They are doing just fine on their own," Obama said. He said that "it is time to stop subsidizing yesterday's energy" and encourage tomorrow's.

'How we make a living'

That futuristic focus was a centerpiece of his appearance, as Obama argued that the U.S. needs to "out-educate" and "out-innovate" the rest of the world.

"In America, innovation isn't just how we change our lives; it's how we make a living," he said.

To that end, he went on, the U.S. is investing in Energy Innovation Hubs. One, planned in Philadelphia, will be led by Penn State and concentrate on developing new energy efficiencies in building design and operations.

That project is receiving $129 million from the U.S. Department of Energy.

"You've answered the call," Obama said. He said energy-research discoveries and innovations developed in the Philadelphia hub will lead to more jobs in construction, engineering and other fields.

"It will be more than jobs that help support families; they will be jobs with a national purpose," Obama said.

A substantive talk

Interviewed later, Penn State President Graham Spanier said he felt Obama's address was a substantive talk. He said he was delighted with the recognition given to Penn State's research work.

The university counts hundreds of researchers in the energy- and environment-related fields, making it one of the real leaders in that arena, Spanier said.

Earlier in the day, he said, he visited for several minutes with Obama, accompanied by Energy Secretary Steven Chu. Several of Chu's former doctoral students are new hires at Penn State, Spanier said.

Obama also visited with members of the Paterno family and university board Vice Chairman John Surma, Spanier said. The president's trip took him to some engineering research spaces on campus, as well.

A delayed arrival

Air Force One landed at University Park Airport about 11:30 a.m. There, Obama was greeted by State College Mayor Elizabeth Goreham and U.S. Rep. Glenn "G.T." Thompson before heading toward campus.

By the time Obama took the stage at Rec Hall at 12:30 p.m., he was about 15 minutes behind schedule. He was introduced by what seemed like a recorded, official-sounding voice. No one followed him at the podium.

After speaking for 22 minutes, he stuck around in the main gym for several more minutes to shake hands. He left Rec Hall around 1 p.m. and was airborne from University Park Airport about 20 minutes later.

No unanimity

While the crowd in Rec Hall appeared enthusiastic, not everyone was thrilled with Obama's energy vision.

Outside the facility, the Penn State chapter of Young Americans for Freedom conducted a counter rally.

"This administration has consistently opted to favor high-cost, impractical energy solutions under the guise of being 'green,'" Penn State YAF Chairman Samuel Settle said in a news release.

Thompson issued his own statement, too. It was an honor to have Obama in Pennsylvania to highlight energy research and the "tremendous" work by Penn State on energy efficiency, Thompson said in the statement.

"Unfortunately, without a comprehensive plan that also includes making better use of existing resources and expanding our domestic production, situations like that in Egypt will continue to underscore the need to cease America's reliance on foreign energy," the statement goes on.

"Our prosperity as a nation is dependent upon access to sustainable, low-cost energy, and I will continue to push for a comprehensive energy plan that meets these demands, promotes American energy and builds a foundation for long-term economic growth and security," Thompson's statement concludes.

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Dana is a Penn State senior majoring in broadcast journalism and is a StateCollege.com news intern. She can be reached at dlr5037@psu.edu.
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