Obama on Clean Technology

Last night's compelling and in many ways inspiring State of the Union speech by President Obama should come as good news to the clean technology community and anyone who cares about the climate, energy independence and American economic leadership.  The President not only higlighted clean energy throughout his speech, but also signaled his continuing view, shared by many, that it must be at the heart of America's economic revival.

While clean energy has advanced since last year's clean-weighted stimulus bill, the critical stage of moving clean technology from a promising funding category in Silicon Valey to a major engine of economic revival remains ahead.  Here is how to accelerate that process.

First, as the president indicated, innovation is key.  But innovation is not just about advanced research and grants to large companies--the focus of last year's stimulus. To really get the job machine revving, we need to move innovation into the marketplace.  And we need small companies to turn into large ones.  That is where job creation really occurs--in the transformation of a startup consiting of a two enrepreneurs into a massive global company employing tens of thousands.  (Think Apple, Yahoo or Google.) As I have long been arguing, the major obstacle here is a complex and highly regulated energy landscape that presents a roadblock to the purchase and uptake of clean technologies.  It is time to change that landscape. 

Second, we need to direct R&D funding toward smaller businesses.  Since the 1980s, American industry has had a problem that while we may invent great technologies in our universities, other countries reap the commercial benefits because of a lower cost structure and also because they have efficient networks of small companies backed by large ones or other sources of funding able to exploit cutting edge American technology.  We are seeing in batterty technology today precisely what we saw in semiconductors and LCDs in the 1980s.

During the 1990s, Silicon Valley helped address this problem by funding the stage between reserach and commercial exploitation in California, specifically around Stanford University.  A disproportionate share of entrepreneurs came from Stanford and the surrounding community.  But there is great science going on around the country that needs development funding to begin producing American jobs.

The answer to this problem are programs such as the Advanced Technology Program introduced in the 1990s to help startups survive the Valley of Death, more small business innnovation and research (SBIR) grants and other funding opportunities available on a peer reviewed bases to startups.  Virtually all of the smart grid money in the first stimulus went to large utilities.  However one 50 million grant to a utility could fund 500 grants of 100,000 to startups.  The latter is, by far, the better bet for our nation's money.

Third, it's not just about money.  In many cases, the key to innovation is getting government out of the way.  This was essential during the Internet era.  Many policy efforts currently are focused on getting the government more involved in the energy space, when in fact, the more cure--since government is already heavily involved in protecting incumbents is to remove those protections so as to give new technologies and new players a shot. 

Finally and most importantly, the public must be engaged.  Only people can make a revolution.  Until consumers are part of the action, clean technology will move forward awkwardly.  During the Internet era, consumers downloading new software, building websits, rigging up home networks, starting online stores and staying up to write code were critical to the revolution.  To move clean tech into high gear, we need to empower the American people to generate power, use new technologies and fight climate change.  At NDN, we have been working a great deal on how to empower people to lead the clean technology revolution and I will be debuting a paper on the subject shortly.

The president has set the correct overall direction.  It's up to his policy experts, those in Congress and stakeholders to craft a set of policies.  But it will be up to the American people to create the clean technology revolution.