US president Barack Obama has renewed his call for leadership in the clean energy sector in his annual State of the Union address.

Obama has seen his popularity fall since his election in November 2008 when he declared a drive towards green energy and climate change legislation to be major policy goals.

However his attempts to enact legislation to curb greenhouse gas emissions have so far been defeated by the Senate, while the financial crisis has taken its toll on the growth in renewable energy.

But Obama has put clean energy firmly back in the heart of his policy agenda, announcing on January 25th in his address to Congress that he wants 80 per cent of the country’s electricity to be sourced from clean energy by 2035.

He also said that by 2015, America should have 1 million electric vehicles (EVs) on the road.

The targets would help to keep the USA at the forefront of innovation and development, said the President, who said that opportunities for investment in clean energy as well as biomedical research and information technology represented “our generation’s Sputnik moment”.

“Two years ago, I said that we needed to reach a level of research and development we haven’t seen since the height of the Space Race,” said Obama. “And in a few weeks, I will be sending a budget to Congress that helps us meet that goal … 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.”

Obama said that to help fund the required innovation, he would ask Congress to eliminate the billions in taxpayer dollars currently given to oil companies.

“Some folks want wind and solar. Others want nuclear, clean coal and natural gas. To meet this goal, we will need them all – and I urge Democrats and Republicans to work together to make it happen.”

Obama’s comments were widely welcomed by the clean energy sector but brought criticism from the country’s oil and gas industry.

American Petroleum Institute president and CEO Jack Gerard said that the president’s policies on clean energy would stifle the oil sector and prevent the creation of thousands of new jobs. He called on the president to allow more oil and gas development.

“The oil and natural gas industry is a key driver of new jobs and economic prosperity,” said Gerard. “Producing more oil and gas at home, which most Americans want, could create hundreds of thousands of jobs, reduce our deficit by billions, and enhance our energy security.”

He added: “This means getting back to work in the Gulf of Mexico, access in Alaska, and opening up the Atlantic and Pacific coastal areas to exploration.”

The World Resources Institute (WRI), an environmental think tank, said that “Obama’s declaration of a Sputnik moment is a reminder of the opportunity before us to shift to an energy future that can make America’s economy the most competitive and innovative in the world”.

“But more is needed to truly protect the planet – especially from the threats of climate change,” said Jonathan Lash, president of WRI. “After a year of record-breaking temperatures and a string of notable extreme weather events, the urgency of shifting to low-carbon energy and tackling climate change is as clear as ever.

“America needs to do more to reach its goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 17 per cent by 2020.

“We hope leaders across the country – from business executives to mayors to legislators – recognise the threats we face and will rise to achieve the goals the president has set.”