Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) stirred the clean energy debate yesterday when she alluded to taking a more nuanced, reform-minded approach to U.S. clean tech policy. As reported by The Hill:
“Murkowski, the top Republican on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said she supports continuation of the Energy’s Department loan-guarantee program for green energy, and more broadly backs a federal role in boosting market deployment of alternative energy. “I do believe there is a role, and perhaps that sets me apart from some of my other colleagues on Capitol Hill,” said Murkowski.”
The comments are noteworthy for two reasons. First, Senator Murkowski is absolutely right to recognize that there is an important role for government in the scaling up of new clean technologies. The high-profile bankruptcy of solar manufacturer Solyndra has added fuel to the political fire that government has no role in supporting clean energy innovation. But the bankruptcy did not prove that loans and loan-guarantees are bad policy in and of themselves. Clean energy innovators are hampered by the fact that the industry by nature can be both capital intensive and long-lived – meaning it requires a lot of resources and time to reach success.
Private sector investors are limited in both. It can thus be financially difficult to progress ideas all the way from the lab to technology maturation, across what is known as the clean energy developmental “valleys of death”. Helping private entities bridge the gaps is when government support in the form of loan-type policies therefore make the most sense and can be of greatest value. In fact, the Solyndra bankruptcy called attention not to a failure of the policy tool, but of the policy goal. U.S. clean tech policy goals should focus on spurring innovation towards cost-competitiveness rather than – at least in the case of Solyndra – supporting near-term job creation projects.
Second, Murkowski again reinforces the point that ITIF has been making for years: clean energy innovation – and innovation policy in general – should not be a partisan issue. Politics doubtlessly plays a part in what the Senator characterizes as a “knee-jerk” response to Solyndra – namely, calls for the loan program to be done away with entirely. As ITIF has pointed out time and time again, however, we simply can’t be scared off by failure and careful reform of the program is preferable. “I think we need to get through this period and be able to reflect on what it is that actually comes out of these loan guarantee programs. We are focusing right now on the failures instead of also recognizing that we have done good things for the loan guarantee program,” Murkowski also said during her speech. “We need to make sure it does what it is supposed to be doing.”
In the above photo, Senator Murkowski pays a visit to SolarWorld’s module assembly facility. Photo courtesy of her Flickr stream.