How the Department of Energy Can Bring Another 40 Years of Innovation
Forty years ago, with the stroke of a pen, President Jimmy Carter signed the legislation that created the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), an agency that touches each and every American’s life. This happened in the midst of the energy crisis in the 1970s, when oil prices jumped 350% due to an OPEC oil embargo. The results rippled through the economy and set the stage for the Energy Department’s mission to ensure America’s security and prosperity by working toward energy independence and addressing energy challenges. Today, the agency must build on its past successes and continue to seize the opportunity to create an advanced energy economy.
DOE’s mission is critical to the nation’s security and prosperity, and includes managing the nation’s arsenal of nuclear weapons and reducing nuclear proliferation, coordinating the nation’s federal energy policy and functions, providing early-stage research and development for new technology, and helping key technologies overcome the “valley of death”—the gap between initial demonstration and commercialization—to help advance key industries.
We both worked in the Obama administration, and saw firsthand the incredible science and technology work being done by the Department and its affiliated national laboratories. The government has always played a significant role in innovation, helping to develop the critical technologies and infrastructure that led to the breakthrough of the railroads, the creation of the internet and GPS, and development of the semiconductor industry—essential components of most electronics we use today. A resilient energy market cannot exist without the Department of Energy’s commitment to innovation.
With support from the SunShot Initiative, a DOE effort to drive down the cost of solar power, the solar industry has been able to drastically cut costs, enabling unprecedented technological and market growth, and making America a leader in research and innovation in the energy sector.
Solar project installations are at an all-time high, with enough capacity added in 2016 to power over 10 million homes, a 90% increase over 2015. One out of every 50 new jobs in the U.S. is in the solar industry. According to a DOE report, 187,117 workers are employed at coal, oil, and natural gas power plants compared to nearly 374,000 people in the solar industry. This growth benefits Americans in the form of cost savings on electricity bills, tax revenue to their communities, and job opportunities.
The solar industry is not an isolated success story. ARPA-E, the government’s main research and development arm for advanced energy technologies, supports innovations across a variety of sectors. Modeled after the Department of Defense’s famous Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) program, ARPA-E has provided more than $1.5 billion in funding for over 580 potentially transformational energy technology projects since 2009. These projects have helped advance scientific understanding and technological innovation through peer-reviewed journal articles and patents, furthering America’s leadership as an energy vanguard.
The Department has also driven innovation in energy efficiency that is helping small businesses, homeowners, and many others save money on their electricity bills. By supporting the development and widespread adoption of LED lighting, the U.S. can save the equivalent energy output of 44 large electrical power plants and save more than $30 billion by 2027. Programs like the Better Buildings Challenge help share best practices in energy efficiency across stakeholders so that they can learn from each other to take energy-saving actions.
Even the Loan Guarantee Office that is unfortunately better known for the infamous Solyndra scandal than its solid track record has had many successes. Tesla (TSLA) is one such success story, and it managed to pay off its $465 million loan nine years early. This program also supports fossil fuel projects that reduce greenhouse gas emissions, like the $3.8 billion project in Lake Charles, La. that utilizes the waste from oil refining and turns it into synthetic natural gas while capturing most of the pollution emitted. The program’s loan portfolio has generated about $1.65 billion in interest payments to date and the entire program is expected to bring in about $5 billion for the American taxpayer over the course of the investments.
As we reflect on 40 years of innovation and success, it’s important to also look forward to what the next 40 years have in store for the Department. Energy Secretary Rick Perry has the opportunity to continue to pursue a robust clean energy economy and create a legacy of energy innovation and resiliency. The programs above, along with many others, have proven track records. As the world forges ahead on clean energy, with global investments and adoption of renewable energy at record highs, it makes sense for the DOE to lead by example. A robust clean energy economy brings with it energy security and economic prosperity and puts America first. Happy Birthday, Department of Energy!
Jon Powers is a co-founder of CleanCapital, Iraq veteran, and former White House Federal Chief Sustainability Officer. Brandon Hurlbut is a co-founder of Boundary Stone Partners and former Department of Energy Chief of Staff under Steven Chu.