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How Energy Innovations Could Be Hijacked by Foreign Investors

Steven Chu

Back in August, Secretary of Energy Steve Chu revived the Secretary of Energy’s Advisory Board, a panel George Bush had abolished. Examining the high-powered, from-inside-the-Beltway roster, The Atlantic speculated that Chu was looking to take a stand sometime soon and “needed a little more Beltway muscle.” We got a clearer indication of Chu’s strategy yesterday, when Chu finally convened the board at its inaugural meeting. “I don’t think we have a coherent national energy policy,” he said, according to Nature.com. “The future of the United States in large part rests on how we modernize the energy economy.”

The central theme of the meeting was that a dangerous gap existed between innovative government research and the venture capitalists and companies who should be–but aren’t–reaping the benefits of that research. DOE’s ARPA-E (Advanced Research Project Agency-Energy) was established in 2007, funded with $400 million in 2009, and has since been funding over a hundred projects in seven program areas, including batteries, electrofuels, and carbon capture. The DOE’s newsfeed is cluttered with announcements of several-million-dollar grants.

At the meeting yesterday, members of the board praised Arun Majumdar, ARPA-E’s director, for his choice of awarding grants. But Chu emphasized that without an appropriate response from the private sector, the advances ARPA-E made might remain inert.

Or not quite inert. At the meeting, Chu made the suggestion that if American industry wasn’t clever enough to capitalize on the gains of ARPA-E research projects, surely other nations would. Perhaps Chu’s celebrated bluntness will serve as a needed wake-up call to America’s private sector: If we don’t reap the harvest of our own research, it will serve us right when others do.

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