“This is an industry on the rise. It’s a source of energy that’s becoming cheaper. And more and more businesses are starting to take notice,” Obama said, noting that 16 solar projects have been approved on public land since he took office.
But, standing in front of a vast field of solar panels set against a Nevada mountain skyline, Obama criticized those politicians who he said “make jokes” about alternative energy.
Using a new favorite catch phrase for lawmakers he considers outdated, Obama said, “If these people were around when Columbus set sail, they’d be charter members of the Flat Earth Society.”
The president toured the Copper Mountain photovoltaic facility in Boulder City, Nevada – the largest of its type in the country – before making his remarks, which were intended to highlight one pillar of his “all-of-the-above” energy strategy.
The Copper Mountain solar panel site was constructed in 2010 and produces enough solar energy to power more than 17,000 homes, according to plant’s owner company Sempra Generation. Most of the homes it powers are in Southern California, not Nevada.
While the bulk of the project was financed with private money, it did receive about $40 million in federal tax credits – the sort of funding Obama said the federal government should continue to provide in order to jump-start emerging industries.
He acknowledged, however, that such government investments sometimes do not pay off – an indirect reference, perhaps, to the Solyndra solar power company that went bankrupt in 2011 despite receiving $535 million in federal stimulus loan guarantees.
“Each successive generation recognizes that some technologies are going to work, some won’t; some companies will fail, some companies will succeed,” Obama said.
But he likened such failures to the trail-and-error of now-established industries like automobiles and airplanes, which he noted once were both fledgling technologies themselves.
“Not every auto company succeeded in the early days of the auto industry. Not every airplane manufacturer succeeded in the early days of aviation.”
Obama also compared the Copper Mountain solar facility to an earlier federal energy project – the Hoover Dam, for which Boulder City, just 20 minutes away, was originally constructed as a suburb for dam builders during the 1930s.
“Eight decades ago, in the midst of the Great Depression, the people of Boulder City were busy working on another energy project that you may have heard of. Like today, it was a little bit ahead of its time,” Obama said, referring to the dam. “Even today it stands as a testimony to American ingenuity, American imagination and the power of the American spirit.”
Perhaps coincidentally, Obama’s praise of the Hoover Dam came just days after the government-funded project was mentioned by Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney as an example of the kind of large-scale construction projects America is capable of.
“We once built the interstate highway system and the Hoover Dam. Today, we can't even build a pipeline,” Romney said Monday in Illinois, referring to the stalled northern portion of the Keystone oil pipeline.
(Obama’s energy tour is not considered by the White House to be an official campaign jaunt.)