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Clean energy backers enthused

Obama plan wins applause in Mass.

By Erin Ailworth
Globe Staff / January 27, 2011

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President Obama’s challenge to the nation’s alternative energy sector during his State of the Union address was clear: 1 million electric vehicles on the road by 2015, 80 percent of the nation’s electricity from renewable sources by 2035, and — perhaps the most ambitious — an end to billions in tax breaks for oil companies.

“Instead of subsidizing yesterday’s energy,’’ Obama said, “let’s invest in tomorrow’s.’’

It was just the message that Massachusetts officials and alternative energy firms said they needed to hear, and one they hope will spur the government support that local companies need to expand, create jobs, and bring their technologies into widespread use.

“The industry was actually looking for some support at the federal level, and I don’t think the president could have been more clear that this was high in his priorities, high on his agenda,’’ said Patrick Cloney, executive director of the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center, a quasi-public agency meant to expand the state’s clean energy cluster, which has roughly 500 companies and employs about 10,000.

Energy and innovation were key elements of Obama’s speech, which focused on rebuilding the US economy. He compared the technological and economic challenges facing the nation’s energy sector to the late 1950s, when the Soviet Union launched the Sputnik satellite. That in turn spurred a massive investment in science, education, and research, culminating in the 1969 US landing on the moon.

“This is our generation’s Sputnik moment,’’ Obama said, later adding, “We’re telling America’s scientists and engineers that if they assemble teams of the best minds in their fields, and focus on the hardest problems in clean energy, we’ll fund the Apollo projects of our time.’’

Just how the nation will reach Obama’s ambitious goals — and what that will mean for local clean energy companies — is still in question, however.

“Hopefully, the policies the administration is proposing will translate into a tangible increase in demand, an increase in [research and development] spending, investments in manufacturing,’’ said Andy Chu, a spokesman for advanced battery maker A123 Systems of Watertown. “Really, just create a market.’’

A123, which makes lithium ion batteries for vehicles and other applications, has already received significant federal support, including nearly $250 million from the Department of Energy to build a factory in Michigan.

Peter Rothstein, president of the New England Clean Energy Council, said abolishing oil subsidies can only help to boost clean technology.

“It’s a very important pricing signal to send to the market,’’ he said.

Representative Edward J. Markey of Malden, a ranking Democrat on the House Natural Resources Committee, said lawmakers and policy makers need to ensure that renewable energy is able to compete with fossil fuels such as oil and coal, which are still heavily subsidized by the government, and that “consumers are getting the cheapest, cleanest energy.’’

He said Massachusetts could play a leading role in making that happen.

“The Bay State is the brain state,’’ he said in a statement. “Our educational institutions and clean energy companies have long served as the incubators for new ideas and innovative technologies that help to reduce America’s dependence on foreign oil, reenergize our economy, and create clean energy jobs right here at home.’’

Erin Ailworth can be reached at eailworth@globe.com.