Boldly rethinking our energy future

Innovation is the way to energy independence. The links between energy independence, technological innovation, basic and applied research, work-force development, education and manufacturing are just beginning to be understood, yet all are integral components of a strong domestic economy.

Energy independence is the talk of the town lately, but is Washington actually willing to take the bold steps — and perhaps risks — to get the job done?

Setting near-term technological priorities in energy is largely acknowledged as the prerogative of private industry. So what role should policymakers play in what is seemingly a marketplace issue? As long as market priorities are in line with national imperatives such as energy independence, Congress can and must leverage vast technical resources to get us there as quickly as possible.

Last fall, I introduced legislation that directly implements recommendations of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) “Gathering Storm” report on U.S. competitiveness. One piece of that legislative package — H.R. 4435 — creates an Advanced Research Projects Agency for Energy (ARPA-E), modeled on the successful DARPA program at the Department of Defense. I believe an ARPA-E is the first step in a giant innovative leap towards U.S. energy independence — so do a panel of experts at NAS.

The seeds of change will not grow in an environment of stale bureaucracy and political wrangling. Just as DARPA successfully coordinated with — but stayed independent of — the existing military R&D complex, a program like ARPA-E must be afforded the same autonomy and institutional flexibility to execute high-risk, high-payoff basic research and technology development free of the conventional energy R&D structure.

This in no way abdicates the oversight responsibilities of Congress. Rather, with ARPA-E as a well-funded, independent agency reporting directly to the secretary of energy, it will have the ability to draw people and ideas from all of the research and technology-development programs in the Department of Energy, the nation’s universities and private industry.

There has been increased attention on long-term revolutionary technologies such as hydrogen energy, fusion energy, methane hydrates, cellulosic ethanol, microbial production of biofuels, clean coal, carbon sequestration and the next generation of nuclear plants. While it is critical to sustain ongoing research in these fields, many are still decades away from real market penetration. We don’t have that much time. The United States needs alternatives energy sources and energy efficient technologies with immediate impacts.

A program with the resources and flexibility of ARPA-E can focus on the technology breakthroughs that get nearer-term, transitional, transformational energy technologies into the marketplace fast while also addressing fundamental research questions that lead us to the longer-term technologies that may revolutionize “energy” as we know it. No longer will energy advances die in the “valley of death” of technology transfer. ARPA-E will be the conduit for getting cutting-edge technologies and the people who invent them out of the lab and into the marketplace.

Innovation breeds innovation. When a program like this works as intended, it sets in motion a chain reaction that breeds far greater benefits than the development of a single technology.

The sophistication of our domestic work force must keep pace with our technological advancement. The more incentive people have to create and innovate in energy technology, the more people will choose careers in these fields. This starts at the earliest stages with strong science, technology, engineering and math education in K-12 and includes work-force development and training. Coupled with reliable and affordable energy, the result is a continued global leadership in manufacturing and a stronger economy.

We’ve been chipping away at energy policy for years — increasing production here, a tax incentive there, funding energy R&D when it’s convenient and letting programs languish when it’s not, even regarding energy conservation as a “personal virtue.” It’s time we think of new ways to approach this problem. Decades of energy research only pay off if truly innovative technologies come to fruition. Frankly, we’re still using technologies from the 19th and 20th centuries to address the problems of the 21st century. Replacing “traditional” energy sources requires an unprecedented basic research and technology-development effort, not the same conservative approach that has kept us where we are.

The creation of an ARPA-E is an aggressive step — one we must take toward tangible progress. Energy security does not have to be a dream 20 years in the future. It can be our reality if we’re willing truly to foster innovation.

Gordon is the ranking member of the Science Committee and serves on the Energy and Commerce Committee.