As President Obama prepares to deliver his State of the Union address next week, Washington, D.C. seems focused on the politics of conflict. Between a president intent on making full use of his executive authority and Republican leaders in Congress on sending the nation in a different direction, the clash of agendas is obvious. Less obvious is the chance for a different kind of politics – a politics of prosperity.

In the politics of prosperity, the greatest opportunity lies in energy. We could squander it if we’re not careful.


The U.S. economy is picking up steam. Nearly 3 million jobs were created last year, the strongest job growth in 15 years. Unemployment dropped to 5.6 percent in December, the lowest it’s been since the recession began in 2008. The economy overall grew at a 5 percent rate in the third quarter of 2014, and growth for the year is expected to be at least 3 percent. While Europe and Asia struggle, the U.S. is gaining strength.

The falling prices of oil and natural gas are giving this economic momentum a further boost. Average retail price of gasoline is $2.23. That’s the lowest it’s been since 2008. Natural gas is at a two-year low, under $3 per million Btus. Increased domestic production has already made us more energy independent. Now we find ourselves awash in cheap fuel for cars, trucks, airplanes, homes, and power plants. That’s putting dollars back in the pockets of consumers, making American businesses more competitive, and accelerating economic growth.

However, low fuel prices need to be seen as a breather, not a permanent condition. When it comes to commodities like oil and gas, what goes up must come down, but what comes down also inevitably goes back up. When that happens, the price shock on the upside does more harm to our economy than the lower price does good.

Remember this: just months before the price of oil dropped to under $50 a barrel in 2008, it peaked at $147. Gasoline was over $4 a gallon and natural gas was at $12. Even now, when prices are rock bottom nationally, there have been localized price spikes in natural gas in places like New England, where pipelines are constrained, and those have pushed electricity prices up as well.

We need to take advantage of today’s low fuel prices to accelerate new energy solutions that protect us from the volatility of fuel costs, not kid ourselves into thinking those costs won’t go back up.

Today we have more ways to meet energy needs than ever before. America can get energy from a range of domestic sources, not only oil, coal, and natural gas, but also nuclear, wind, solar, geothermal, hydro, waste and biomass. We can get electric power from rooftops as well as centralized power plants.

The vehicles we drive are more efficient, advanced lighting is slashing electricity bills, and utility programs are helping customers find ways to use less energy and save money. Energy storage is beginning to free us from the burden of maintaining costly excess power generating capacity to meet peak demand.

States from New York to Hawaii are exploring ways to remake utility business models. Customers large and small are looking for ways to take advantage of the new energy options that are available, and that means new ways of doing business for utilities.

All this innovation is also building an industry. Our 2014 market report shows that advanced energy is a $170 billion industry in the U.S.

Recent studies show that this growth translates into jobs. California is on its way to more than 500,000 advanced energy jobs by the end of this year. In Massachusetts, clean energy employment has grown 47% since 2010, now 2.4 percent of the total state workforce, and on track to 100,000 jobs this year. In Illinois, a survey produced for the Clean Energy Trust placed advanced energy jobs at 98,875 workers in 2013 – enough to fill Soldier Field 1½ times – and expected to grow 9 percent by the end of 2014. The Arkansas Advanced Energy Association reports that advanced energy is responsible for 16,000 direct jobs and revenue of $1.7 billion in that state, plus an estimated 9,300 workers and $1.1 billion in output from related industries.  

The politics of prosperity can give us a new politics of energy, which will keep the prosperity going. That beats the politics of conflict any day. 

Richard is CEO of Advanced Energy Economy, a national business association.