Government Has Long History of Promoting Innovation; It Can Do the Same with Clean Energy

President Obama had some strong words about the value of innovation on Thursday. He was responding to a comment made by Representative Cliff Stearns (R-FL), who said, “We can’t compete with China to make solar panels and wind turbines.”

“I don’t buy that,” Obama said firmly.

I’m not going to surrender to other countries the technological leads that can end up determining whether or not we are building a strong middle class in this country.  So we’re going to have to keep on pushing hard to make sure the manufacturing is located here, new businesses are located here and new technologies are developed here. And there are going to be times when it doesn’t work out, but I’m not going to cave to the competition when they are heavily subsidizing all these industries.

Representative Stearns and several other GOP lawmakers would have America throw in the towel on clean energy. Instead of giving American innovators every advantage to lead the market, they want to cede the race to China right now.

They would start by ending the Department of Energy’s loan guarantees to clean energy projects because they say the failure of one solar company, Solyndra, shows the government has no business supporting energy innovation.

Yet the government must play a role in developing something as significant as a new energy system for our nation.

Fossil fuel companies and their allies in Congress don’t agree. We can assume typewriter manufacturers didn’t welcome the Department of Defense’s investment in computers and information technology either.

But the stakes are too high to have the government walk away.  Clean energy is a matter of national interest—just like good schools, reliable infrastructure, and a strong military. Expanding America’s clean energy resources will provide a hedge against volatile oil prices, reduce our need to buy oil from unstable regimes, and reduce the danger of climate change.

In the meantime, it is putting Americans to work and generating profits. The clean energy sector grew nearly twice as fast as the overall economy between 2003 and 2010. Nearly 90,000 Americans make their living building wind turbines, reports the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and more than 150,000 Americas have jobs building cleaner, more fuel efficient cars.

Energy stability, national security, and economic growth. Americans expect the government to provide these services. Clean energy will help deliver them.

Private clean energy companies are already thriving in this country, overcoming obstacles like the fact that polluters do not pay for their pollution, or electricity systems are not yet designed for wind and solar power.

Yet they could accomplish and develop the next generation of energy solutions if they had additional, stable government support. New energy technologies have large upfront costs and high risks. Investors aren’t always comfortable putting up the money for an untested innovation, particularly in this economy. Government research funding and loan guarantees can help advanced technologies move out of the lab and into the market faster. That means Americans will have quicker access to the benefits of cleaner air, fewer oil imports, and a more stable climate.

Bill Gates, John Doerr, Ursula Burns and other technology and investment visionaries involved in the American Energy Innovation Council agree. Last month, they urged lawmakers to support move government support of clean energy innovations. Gates said:

Even though the budget challenges are very tough, we think this is an investment that has a very strong payback…There is a need for government to be involved in funding research. We have seen this in the medical sector and the IT sector. The benefits to society of research are broad enough that if you just count on the private sector alone, you have very dramatic underinvestment.

America can’t afford to under-invest in an economic and national security solution as powerful as clean energy. Nor can the government fail to take a part in promoting clean energy.

What would have happened if President Washington said the government didn’t need to encourage the building of canals to link factories and ports? What would have happened if president Lincoln said the government should stop backing transcontinental railroads? Or what would have happened if Kennedy said there was no role for government in striving for the moon-- a mission that field-tested supercomputers and microprocessors.

American innovators have a track record of making technological leaps that improve our lives, but the American government also has a history of nurturing those transformations. It should continue to do so for clean energy.