Editor’s Note: EarthTechling, always looking to forward the cleantech revolution discussion, is proud to bring you this column via a cross post from partner The Climate Reality Project. Author credit goes to Shravya Reddy.
Earlier this month marked the start of an independent review of U.S. Department of Energy’s loans to 28 clean energy projects around the country. These projects are entrepreneurial business ventures that use innovative technology – and most of them are going strong. The default rate under the program isless than 4%, far lower than the Small Business Administration’s 12% default rate. But after just two of these loans have failed (less than 2% of the total loaned amount), some have suggested it’s just not worth it for us to invest any more on clean energy.
Talk about throwing the baby out with the bathwater. The truth is, an investment in clean energy is an investment in the future. Let’s just take a quick look at our lives, and ask where some of our favorite modern conveniences came from. Guess what – they started with investment from places like the military, the space program and national agencies like the Department of Energy. For example:
- Cell phones: At the heart of a cell phone is the humble microchip. When first invented in 1958, the price of a microchip was staggeringly high, making its commercial future uncertain. However, the military and the space program bought enough first-generation microchips to drive the price down by 50 percent in just a few years, making microchips affordable for private companies. Radiotelephony techniques (two-way communication) used in cell phones also received early public funding. It was the Defense Navigation Satellite System (NAVSTAR) satellite program that first developed the GPS technologies that give your smart-phone so many capabilities. And if you’re an iPhone user who loves that multitouch screen, you may be interested to learn that researchers funded by the National Science Foundation and the CIA developed the technology.
- Airplanes: Despite the Wright Brothers’ maiden flight in 1903, they were unable to make rapid strides until 1908 when they secured a contract to make an aircraft for the U.S. Army. Aviation remained largely a hobby until 1915, when the U.S. government set up the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics.NACA set up the first testing chamber with a wind tunnel, an essential contributor to flight safety, and oversaw the development of innovations that improved efficiency and reduced turbulence. Department of Defense support also advanced private sector innovation, such as the DC-3 aircraft, which was full of components and technologies developed through years of military research.
- The Internet: the place where you’re reading this post has its origins in the ARPANET, born in the 1960s at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, where brilliant minds have collaborated since 1958 to give the U.S. a strategic security advantage.
Personal computing, jet engines, railroads, cancer treatments…the list goes on and on. Innovation needs resources, and large institutions (like the military or government researchers) are often the only ones in the position to fund experimental, but promising, new technologies based on their potential alone.
And here’s what’s just as important: These technologies pay for themselves many times over. The DOE loan guarantee program in question has already created or saved nearly 44,000 jobs. The solar industry in the U.S. is growing at 6.8% a year, and represents hundreds of thousands of jobs. Globally, the solar industry could meet a third of the planet’s energy’s needs around mid-century and be responsible not only for economic growth, but also a steep reduction in carbon pollution. Solar energy is one of the main tools we have to solve the climate crisis. But in order to realize these goals down the road, we need to act now. That’s what clean energy innovators are trying to do. Aren’t you glad someone has an eye on the future?