Last week, the Department of Energy said the Illinois Institute of Technology, the University of Maine and the University of Minnesota will receive up to $8 million each for wind-energy research.

In May, Obama said $467 million would go toward geothermal- and solar-energy projects. In September, the Department of Energy finalized a $535 million loan guarantee for startup Solyndra, which makes solar-voltaic panels. It was the department's first loan guarantee since the 1980s. Solyndra also received $286 million of venture capital funding in the third quarter, the largest of any company.

"Investment in this area is driven by a number of factors, but probably the most important one is government support of early-stage research programs in this area," said Emily Mendell, vice president of the National Venture Capital Association in Arlington, Va.

Still, environmentalists have criticized the administration for a lack of financial incentives to embrace renewable energy.

"The government has a limited source of funds with which to spur development into cleaner fuels," says Robin Chase, co-founder of car-sharing company Zipcar and the chief executive of transportation consultancy Meadow Networks. "Consumer choice could drive investment and consumption of alternatives if the pricing signals more accurately reflected costs. A carbon tax would immediately change the cost per dirty unit of energy relative to a clean unit, as well as to incentivize people to seek out efficiency and conservation approaches. Reducing existing subsidies in fossil fuels also changes the relative costs between clean and dirty fuels."

Obama acknowledged in his speech that the transfer from fossil fuels to renewable energy isn't yet a smooth one. "We all know there's no silver bullet to do it," he said. "But there's no question that we must do all these things."

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