Notwithstanding the bleak outlook surrounding federal clean energy policy detailed in our recent report “Sizing the Clean Economy,” the FY 2012 omnibus spending compromise hammered out last week actually contains several reassuring affirmations of the value of recent institutional experiments.
One winner is the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, perhaps the Department of Energy’s most popular program.
Although the program is funded at just $275 million--about half the level President Obama had requested--many will probably be relieved that the program has now survived, which hasn’t always seemed a certainty. Moreover, the deal improved on earlier bills that have circulated, suggesting that the cause of the government fomenting disruptive innovation using “outside-the-box” investments in venturesome technology ideas may be gaining traction. That’s good news.
So is another happy surprise in the deal: the authorization of two new DOE Energy Innovation Hubs, one specializing in rare earths and energy-critical materials and one for energy storage technologies. To be sure, the Obama administration had originally asked for eight of these hubs, and settled for three before this year requesting funds for three more in 2012. However, congressional appropriators weren't convinced that there was a need for a hub focused on smart grid technologies, as reported Darius Dixon in Politico, and so the nation now has two more of them, for a total of five of these special purpose-driven, multidisciplinary centers for accelerated collaboration between corporations, universities, and government labs.
Yet we’ll take it. Having long argued that the nation has been making do with an obsolete energy research paradigm excessively oriented toward individual academic investigators, on the one hand, and the siloed and bureaucratic efforts of the DOE’s energy laboratories, on the other, it is gratifying to watch the slow but continuing rollout of a true network of well-funded, multi-sector regional innovation centers. Congress is doing the right thing by creating--hub by hub--a set of sizable new institutes charged with “winning the future” in energy technology.