In the 2012 election, issues including job creation, the deficit and healthcare are front and center. The first presidential debate is on Wednesday, and some, if not all, of these topics will be raised.

What is less clear is to what extent energy will join the crowded space of hot-button issues. A recent poll found that “clean air and clean energy policies” were important to undecided voters in swing states -- but it’s not a given that those voters will pick a candidate on the basis of energy policy over other issues. (It's rare for people to say they're against clean air when asked.)

At a recent Clean Energy Connections panel, Travis Bradford, founder of The Prometheus Institute for Sustainable Development, and Tim Greeff, vice president of government affairs at the Advanced Energy Economy, sat down with Shayle Kann, vice president of research at Greentech Media to discuss what this election could mean for renewables and cleantech.

Because other topics have trumped energy so far, much of the discussion was extrapolating from the limited information at hand, especially regarding Romney’s energy plan.

“Fundamentally, Romney’s energy policy is based on energy independence. Which mostly is about our oil addiction,” said Greeff. “With Romney, there is less ‘drill baby drill,’ but it is more about ‘leveling the playing field.’”

Both Greeff and Bradford agreed that it was difficult to know exactly what a level playing field could mean, and that if it meant cuts across the board in subsidies -- including cutting off subsidies to oil, gas and coal -- it might not be as damaging as some in cleantech are anticipating. A level playing field could also mean keeping traditional energy suppliers at the center of the energy policy.

Of course, it’s mostly guess-work. “[Romney’s plan] focuses on one problem, which is our addiction to foreign oil, and not really about just the addiction to oil. It’s hard to glean what he means,” said Greeff. Even without a solid plan, Bradford, who was also skeptical of what Romney has offered so far, noted that it might not be as bad as many in cleantech are anticipating. “You hope it’s a 2003 Romney that would govern,” he said.

If energy never makes it front and center, there is a chance for some substantial changes to the energy future if real tax reform takes place in the next administration. “It would allow us to redefine how we do energy taxes,” said Greeff. “Everyone’s going to take a haircut and that includes energy.”

In a second Obama administration, both speakers doubted there would be much difference from the first term. Obama will likely continue to push for “all of the above,” while putting his effort behind other issues. Greeff noted that "all of the above" was actually first put forward by John McCain. 

One issue both candidates (and every politician) love to talk about is job creation. But job creation is in the eye of the beholder, said Greeff.  Trying to nail down hard numbers on job creation linked to any industry -- including cleantech -- is nearly impossible.

That being said, solar installations and wind farms are putting people to work, even if Solyndra continues to be a four-letter word in Washington political circles. “Manufacturing jobs tend to get up and walk away,” said Bradford. “Installation jobs don’t.”

The same can be said for energy efficiency retrofits. There is simply no way to have someone in Bangladesh install LEDs at a warehouse in the U.S. Assuming that partisan politics continue into 2013, it might seem like a good time to move through some “safe” legislation that everyone can agree on. Energy efficiency is one such topic.

Don’t hold your breath there either, said Greeff. “Energy efficiency is one of those unfortunate issues that it makes so much sense it has no champion,” he noted. “Even if you have bipartisan support, there’s no vehicle to attach it to to get it moving.” Obama has made strides in his first term with efficiency, including raising fuel economy standards and it's possible that he would use his executive power again to make efficiency gains.

Neither speaker was particularly hopeful for real focus on energy from either candidate. Energy efficiency will continue to be left to the state level, where public utility commissions have more opportunities to incent utilities to become efficient than the federal government. “Utilities are the greatest obstacle and greatest avenue for change in this area,” said Bradford. But if political deadlock in Washington seems frustrating, then the slow slog of public utility commissions to overhaul an outdated regulatory structure is downright excruciating.

One more issue that would likely never come back to Congress for debate, no matter who is president, is cap and trade. However, Greeff did offer one final thought if the subject of a carbon tax is raised from the dead. “You have a better chance of getting that passed with a Republican president,” he said. “The kicker is, what do you do with that money?”

Don’t expect that question to come up, let alone be answered, at Wednesday’s debate.

Tags: clean energy, energy policy, green jobs, mitt romney energy, obama, obama administration