President Barack Obama made an appearance in Florida last week that should have gotten more attention. At a time when many Americans are apprehensive about the state of the economy and uncertain about the nation's long-term prospects, Obama delivered an upbeat speech that offered a glimpse of a broader vision and a practical way forward on the crucial issues of energy and jobs.
Speaking at the opening of a solar energy center run by the Florida Power & Light Co. near Arcadia in rural DeSoto County, the president touted his administration's $3.4 billion investment in the so-called smart grid, a potentially revolutionary advance in the way electric power is produced and delivered.
The president spoke near a sea of shimmering solar panels tilted toward the sky across the vast acreage of the DeSoto Next Generation Solar Energy Center.
Obama said that the plant will produce enough power to serve all 6,000 residents of Arcadia. He added: "Its construction was a boost to your local economy, creating nearly 400 jobs in this area. And over the next three decades, the clean energy from this plant will save 575,000 tons of greenhouse gas emissions, which is the equivalent of removing more than 4,500 cars from the road each year for the life of the project."
The energy center was one of dozens of projects receiving grants from the federal government and private industry for the development of smart-grid technology. These are the kinds of baby steps that, if encouraged, replicated and expanded, can put the country on the road to a more prosperous and secure future.
More significant than the size of the grants being handed out was the thrust of Obama's remarks, which sounded like a national call to action. He offered a compelling analogy: "Just imagine," he said, "what transportation was like in this country back in the 1920s and 1930s, before the Interstate Highway System was built. It was a tangled maze of poorly maintained back roads that were rarely the fastest or the most efficient way to get from point A to point B. Fortunately, President Eisenhower made an investment that revolutionized the way we travel — an investment that made our lives easier and our economy grow.
"Now it's time to make the same kind of investment in the way our energy travels — to build a clean energy superhighway that can take the renewable power generated in places like DeSoto and deliver it directly to the American people in the most affordable and efficient way possible. Such an investment won't just create new pathways for energy — it's expected to create tens of thousands of new jobs all across America in areas ranging from manufacturing and construction to I.T. and the installation of new equipment in homes and in businesses."
The president then made the conceptual leap from an innovative plant in Florida to a bold new landscape of energy for all of America. "We can imagine the day," he said, "when you'll be able to charge the battery on your plug-in hybrid car at night, because your smart meter reminded you that nighttime electricity is cheapest. In the daytime, when the sun is at its strongest, solar panels like these and electricity stored in car batteries will be able to power the grid with affordable, emission-free energy."
On the same day, Vice President Biden announced in Wilmington, Del., that a General Motors plant that had been shut down would be reopened by a company that plans, with the help of loans from the federal government, to manufacture long-range, plug-in, electric hybrid vehicles.
What was missing from these appearances by the president and vice president was the feeling of excitement that should accompany the early stages of an important national mission.
The news media took a ho-hum approach to both appearances. There were no signals from the White House that something big was happening. Obama's vision, briefly glimpsed, seemed to vanish in an ocean of other concerns.
NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE