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In his state of the union address last night, President Obama called for an end to oil subsidies and set a national goal of reaching 80 percent clean energy by 2035.

“I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but they’re doing just fine on their own,” Obama said. “So instead of subsidizing yesterday’s energy, let’s invest in tomorrow’s.”

While Obama urged Congress to back legislation that would support such a lofty goal, the energy legislation has proven difficult to pass in the past. The president couched his plan in the terms of supporting American innovation and the need to compete and win globally — singling out the goal of the U.S. being the first country to get one million electric vehicles on the roads in the U.S. by 2015. (Secretary of Energy Steven Chu made a similar appeal last year, saying the clean energy revolution is the country’s “Sputnik moment.”)

The administration was unable to pass both a major energy bill last year and a proposal to eliminate $40 billion in yearly oil company subsidies, according to Reuters. Wind and solar industry associations mounted a frantic end-of-year struggle in December to renew an investment tax credit that was eventually extended for one year.

Obama will emphasize his point by touring two Wisconsin cleantech companies today, one that develops energy-saving solutions for clients, and the other a wind tower manufacturer.

Governments around the world have stimulated investment in clean energy. China, for example, has pledged billions to the smart grid and pledged to get five million electric vehicles on the roads by 2020. California has decreed that 33 percent of power purchased by utilities must be from clean sources by 2030; Hawaii set a goal of 70 percent clean energy by 2030.

The idea behind those mandates was summed up by the president last night:

“Clean energy breakthroughs will only translate into clean energy jobs if businesses know there will be a market for what they’re selling,” Obama said.

Industry watchers have remained largely bearish on the likelihood of significant national clean energy policy, which would stimulate investment and expansion within the country’s cleantech industry. However, the Department of Energy has a large loan guarantee program, which has supported wind and solar investments, and recently awarded $405 million to three companies building biofuels refineries.

In his speech, the president included energy sources like nuclear, natural gas and clean coal technologies. Natural gas in particular has surged of late, with oil companies making acquisitions and starting projects in the area. In a report last year, consulting and engineering firm Black & Veatch forecast natural gas would power 40 percent of the nation by 2035, while coal will fade from dominance. Natural gas is a fossil fuel that emits fewer emissions than coal when burned and is considered promising because the infrastructure already exists it.

[Image via Wikipedia Commons]

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