PROVIDENCE -- In this tiny coastal state, where government officials see wind and water as vital new pistons in their economic engine, energy tops many minds.
"People care quite deeply," says Karina Lutz, deputy director of People's Power & Light, a non-profit group focused on sustaining the environment and making energy affordable. "They want renewable energy. They want to save money on energy. And they don't want to see oil tar on their beaches."
Rhode Islanders are looking for the next president to reduce American dependence on foreign oil, to make the cars they drive more fuel-efficient and to harness the sun and other elements for heat and light. "The most important thing is looking at what we can do to sustain ourselves," says Kim Greenberg, 52, a dancer who lives in nearby Warwick.
Opinion polls in the past month show Democrat Barack Obama with a decisive lead here over Republican John McCain. A survey Sept. 30-Oct. 1 by Opinion Factor Worldwide found Obama leading McCain 48% to 26%.
McCain and Obama both support development of renewable energy sources such as wind, solar and geothermal. Obama has said he would spend $150 billion over a decade to develop those sources, creating 5 million jobs. McCain has proposed a tax credit for businesses that research alternate energy sources, equal to 10% of their workers' salaries.
Asked in last week's debate how they would rank energy, Social Security and health care, Obama put energy first. McCain said all three issues can be dealt with simultaneously and stressed the need for more offshore oil drilling and nuclear power.
Some Rhode Island officials say it is critical that the next administration accelerate the nation's movement toward new kinds of power. "Both candidates talk a lot about energy policy," says Saul Kaplan, executive director of the Rhode Island Economic Development Corp. "We're hopeful that regardless of who wins … we'll see serious progress over the next four years."
Two years ago, Rhode Island Gov. Donald Carcieri, a Republican, said he wanted to see 20% of the state's electric power generated from renewable sources. Last month, state officials selected a developer to build an offshore wind turbine project that would generate 15% of the state's electricity and help position Rhode Island as a base for the alternative energy industry. The approximately $1.5 billion project must get approval from the state and federal governments.
"We don't have oil, we don't have gas, we don't have uranium, but we've got water, and we've got wind," says Andrew Dzykewicz, commissioner of the state's Office of Energy Resources.
He says wind power would cost 7 to 9 cents per kilowatt-hour compared with the 12.4 cents customers currently pay.
Rhode Island has nurtured health and life sciences, information technology and other industries. Officials hope energy will create another job sector. "Taking a lead role nationally provides us with the opportunity … to attract investment to Rhode Island, which would create good high-wage jobs for our citizens," Kaplan says.
Jennifer Kennedy, 37, wants to see the next president spend more on research for fuel-efficient cars and public transportation. An Obama supporter, she liked the positions he took during last week's debate.
"He put energy first, which maybe wasn't the easiest answer, or the most popular answer, but I think it's the most important," says Kennedy, who lives in Providence and works in Brown University's library.
Lutz says the next administration should help low-income residents heat and weatherize their homes. "Energy prices are … a driving reason why people are unable to pay their mortgages," she says.
Lutz says, "Subsidizing fossil fuels or nuclear is just going to take money from the more cost-effective long-term solutions."
Miriam Goldstein disagrees.
"We have to do drilling," says Goldstein, a retiree who says the United States must become more self-sufficient. "If there was another way, fine, but if we're desperate, and we are, we have to."
Goldstein of Narragansett doesn't feel the pinch of rising gas prices because she rarely drives. But she worries about others. "I feel very sorry for young families," says Goldstein, who is not enthusiastic about either presidential nominee. "My son comes to see me on the weekend, and he doesn't say anything, but it hurts me. … It destroys their budget."
Joe Caporelli, 42, likes both candidates talking about creating "green" industries and jobs.
"They want a new energy-based economy, which makes a lot of sense," says Caporelli, a cabinetmaker who lives in Smithfield. "We need nuclear, too. There's no smoke, it's odorless, and you get a lot of jobs."
Americans finding less toxic ways to live, travel and work go beyond the president, he says.
"I've got a small house, and I don't plan on getting a bigger one," says Caporelli, who burns the wood scraps from his business to heat his home. "People should live simpler."