In today's Space Review, Jeff Foust looks at the connections, and possible budget conflicts, between energy and space policy. McCain's car battery prize proposal, and Obama's response, are mentioned. Jeff brings up the space advocate idea that space can help solve energy problems, using spin-offs and Solar Power Satellites as examples that probably would not work well in the political debate. I'd add He3 mining to that category.
My take on it is that the bulk of NASA's space efforts should be directed at solving big problems that the public cares about - energy, environment, security, medical, and so on - using space and aeronautics.
Certainly they'd be justified in NACA-style research to improve space power components that have spin-off potential on Earth like efficient solar panels. The same goes for efficient space life support systems that may help home/office energy efficiency. SPS on the grand scale may be way too much, but a NASA SPS or power relay demo would be useful and achievable, and may have various energy applications on Earth or on a small SPS/SRS scale. NASA mapping of winds has useful application for wind turbines. Satellite mapping of the Earth has a lot of energy uses, from oil searches to designing efficient urban transportation networks. NASA aeronautics can play a useful role in airline efficiency. NACA-style CATS work could help get comsats launched cheaper, which would enable a variety of commercial or government energy-saving comsat applications to be developed (or existing ones to continue cheaper) - GPS and messaging to make transportation more efficient, telecommuting, remote metering, etc. Satellite monitoring of the Sun and space weather are useful in protecting not just satellites, but also terrestrial power grids.
If you consider "Energy and Environment" as one big problem area, NASA's opportunities to contribute to solutions expand greatly.
Of course I have to mention the NASA Centennial Challenges like the GAT "Green Prize" for general aviation efficiency. The X PRIZE Foundation also shows how a single organization can address both space and energy challenges.
Would all of this work well with NASA's Constellation plans? Probably not, but another version of NASA, which we may see soon anyway, could easily contribute to solving the energy problem while still helping with space commercialization, exploration, and development at the same time.
Transterrestrial Musings has some thoughts on a different part of Jeff's article. An excerpt:
Maybe. His piece reminds me of an idea I've had for an essay on why energy independence isn't like landing a man on the moon. ... We're not going to get energy independence from government crash programs (though prizes may be useful).
Interestingly, from a quite different perspective, and undoubtably a very different idea on what should be done, Climate Progress says much the same thing about an "Energy Apollo Program":
Action now is much more important than research, more important than some sort of a massive government “Apollo program” or “Manhattan project,” especially given the large amount of private sector and venture capital money that are now going into clean energy ...