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Dispatch from the ARPA-E Summit 2012: Scared off by Failure?

The ARPA-E Energy Innovation Summit is a wonderful collection of thinkers, policymakers, and industry leaders all focused on accelerating and spurring clean energy innovation.  At the very least, we’re all trying to fundamentally change the U.S. energy sector.  At the very most, we’re trying to effectively and efficiently address America’s biggest energy, climate, and economic challenges.  All tall orders, no doubt.  But as I sit back and begin reflecting on what I’ve heard from speakers and discussed with attendees, one observation is most striking: this wasn’t how it was during the Race to the Moon, was it?

I understand the moon race and the race to cheap clean energy is an apples-to-oranges comparison.  Getting to the moon was a very specific goal that could be focused on with one overarching project. There was a very tangible competitor to beat in the Soviet Union that could be used to marshal the necessary resources. The cheap clean energy race is a multitude of technology projects that are national in scale including the energy grid, transportation sector, building technologies, and baseload power.  There is a very intangible (in the minds of many) competitor to beat in climate change.  Of course, there are other tangibles here as well such as global economic competitiveness and rising gas prices, but nothing like the Cold War.

But imagine if U.S. policymakers decided to end the moon and space program after the first launch rocket test failed.  Or after the fatal Apollo 1 fire that killed all three U.S. astronauts on board.  Where would we be as a nation of we were frightened off by failure and shuttered NASA’s doors?

Of course, we all know we weren’t scared off.  Instead policymakers and experts got together discovered what went wrong and implemented the necessary reforms to make the moon program better.  It obviously paid off in technological innovation and global technological leadership; say nothing of a technological feat that is firmly pressed into our national pride.

Compare that to today’s clean energy race.  One large scale failure – Solyndra – threatens the entire public support system for spurring clean energy innovation.  It even threatens areas of public innovation support – basic science and R&D – that isn’t traditionally controversial, but is now explicitly targeted for cuts. And the very program that supported Solyndra – the loan guarantee program – will more likely than not fail to receive any additional funding, essentially limiting its impact moving forward.  The recent White House report on the program was a good first step in targeting what went wrong in the program and ways to fix it, but it’s questionable there will be any follow-up to change the program.  Rather, policymakers would rather just eliminate the program.

Same could be said for clean energy tax incentives. The solar cash grant program ended at the end of 2011 and the wind production tax credit will lapse at the end of this year.  Many policymakers are fine with this, citing the same failures like Solyndra or Beacon.  A dialogue on ways to make these policies better and drive greater amounts of innovation is not part of the national discussion.

A few early failures in clean energy innovation policy are scaring policymakers (and other thinkers and media folks) away, counter to the innovative spirit of decades past. Why are we so scared?  Innovation – and innovation policy – requires courage to stick through the failures, reform policies if needed, and continue working towards our national goals.  It wasn’t like this during the moon race and it shouldn’t be like this today for the clean energy race.

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