Home' Technology Review : May June 2009 Contents FEATURE STORY
TECHNOLOGY REVIEW MAY/JUNE
remain relatively expensive. Advanced biofuels are also too expen-
sive, and they're years away from significantly cutting into gasoline
consumption. Overhauling the electricity grid will take years, cost
at least a hundred billion dollars, and require new storage technol-
ogies in order to be fully e ective. In testimony before Congress
this March, Secretary of Energy Steven Chu stressed the impor-
tance of finding "transformational technologies" in all these areas.
He noted, among other things, the need for "photovoltaic solar
power that is five times cheaper than today's technology."
No doubt, then, new funding for research will be critical to the
search for low-carbon technologies. Somewhat overshadowed in
the stimulus bill is the $1.6 billion increase for basic science at the
DOE. Even more encouraging, the legislation included $400 mil-
lion to start up and fund the Advanced Research Projects Agency--
Energy (ARPA-E), an o ce designed to mimic the success of the
original ARPA program that pioneered such breakthroughs in
information technology as the precursor to the Internet. Pro-
grams like ARPA-E, which emphasizes government and indus-
try research on high-risk programs, are likely to yield significant
advances. It's also encouraging that in his recent 10-year budget
plan, President Obama proposed almost $75 billion for a perma-
nent R&D tax credit to stimulate private funding of research.
The money is welcome to many in the research community,
especially after years of declining federal and private support (see
"Energy R&D Slowdown," p. 51). But the new emphasis on energy
R&D is also a stark reminder that, almost 30 years after such fund-
ing peaked in the late 1970s, there are still no good or easy answers
when it comes to replacing fossil fuels. Recent statistics from the
DOE's Energy Information Administration reflect the lack of
progress: coal-fired power plants still supply the overwhelming
bulk of the nation's electricity, while solar, wind, and geothermal
together provide about 2 percent (and most of that comes from
wind power). There is little, if any, sign that the green economy
has even begun to sprout.
Congress and the president were, arguably, right to attempt
to revitalize energy research and to link technology spending to
the long-term objective of transforming the country to a clean-
energy economy. Including R&D and other technology programs
in the stimulus bill makes evident to the public what every econo-
mist knows: long-term economic growth depends on innovation
and technological progress. Most important, it has once again
established energy research and the search for cleaner power as
a national priority.
But including so much technology spending in the stimulus
bill also brings dangers. Technology---more specifically, tech-
nological progress---can save the economy. A cleaner energy
infrastructure will prove invaluable to economic growth in the
long term. However, it will take time to realize the benefits. By
confusing immediate help for the economy with technology's
role in creating growth, the stimulus bill runs the risk of raising
unrealistic expectations that could backfire in the face of inevi-
tably slow progress.
If the transition to a clean-tech economy is ever truly to begin,
government policy makers will have to move past politics and
get the economics, policy, and technologies right. The way tech-
nologies are chosen, implemented, and funded will matter. That
means properly designing a carbon pricing program and sup-
porting institutions like the DOE in the expectation that they will
make informed decisions and work closely with private inves-
tors and venture capitalists to develop the most viable technolo-
gies. Perhaps most important, it means that the government will
need to support and fund energy research even as the stimulus
spending peters out and political support for massive technol-
ogy funding wanes.
Richard Lester, director of MIT's Industrial Performance Cen-
ter and a professor of nuclear science and engineering, seems
clearly ambivalent about the merits of the technology funding in
the stimulus bill. "Would it be better not to spend the money on
R&D? Probably not," he says, choosing his words carefully. "I just
don't think we should have high expectations." The di culty, he
says, will be to select the right research projects, given the sud-
den flood of money. "It would be prudent to expect that a lot of
the money will not be well spent," he says.
Adds Lester: "I don't think there is an understanding of the scale
of the task that lies ahead. This will be a long transformation, and
it is going to be very expensive." The reinvention of the nation's
energy sources, he says, "is inherently a project on the time scale
of several decades."
Part II will take a look at how the stimulus money is being spent
around the country.
DAVID ROTMAN IS THE EDITOR OF TECHNOLOGY REVIEW.
The stimulus bill makes
evident to the public what
every economist knows:
long-term economic growth
depends on innovation and
technological progress. But
including so much technology
spending in the legislation
also brings dangers.
Links Archive July August 2009 March April 2009 Navigation Previous Page Next Page