Alexander Says Energy Policy Should Be “Technology-Neutral”

Tells energy innovators U.S. must “catch up with what the rest of the world is doing with our invention,” nuclear power

Posted on March 2, 2010

WASHINGTON – U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) told a large group of scientists, policymakers, energy industry experts and entrepreneurs gathered today at an energy innovation summit sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy and one of its newly created agencies, ARPA-E, that “government policies, short-term subsidies and standards for encouraging clean energy should become as technology-neutral as possible, allowing the marketplace to choose among competing solutions. We should, in basketball terms, let the game come to us.” 

ARPA-E – the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy – was created by the America COMPETES Act of 2007, which Sen. Alexander today called “the most far-reaching bipartisan congressional activity of the last few years.” ARPA-E’s mission is to fund projects that will reduce America’s dependence on foreign energy, address climate issues, improve energy efficiency, and otherwise strengthen the U.S.’s leadership role in advanced energy technologies. 

Sen. Alexander was one of four members of Congress who asked the National Academies for the report that led to the America COMPETES Act, which authorized a doubling of research-and-development funding and support for science and technology education in an effort to maintain America’s competitive position in the world economy.  Alexander led Republican efforts on the bipartisan legislation for over two years prior to its final passage in August 2007. 

The full transcript of Alexander’s remarks at today’s ARPA-E summit follows: 

“My late friend Alex Haley, the author of Roots, used to tell me, ‘Find the good and praise it’ and ‘Tell a story instead of making a speech.’ So, let me begin with a compliment and with a story. 

“The compliment is for [U.S. Department of Energy] Secretary Chu and [U.S. Representative] Bart Gordon [(D-Tenn.)] for their role in creating and launching ARPA-E. They were in it from the beginning: Bart with the group of members of Congress who created America COMPETES from 2005-2007, and Dr. Chu as a member of the panel and as the Secretary of Energy. 

“Now here is the story from our history.    

“Samuel Morse was a moderately successful 19th-century painter whose reputation earned him a commission to paint a portrait of General Lafayette when that Revolutionary War hero returned to America in 1825 to help celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence.  Morse was in the midst of painting the general’s portrait right here in Washington when a messenger arrived on horseback with a message reading one line: ‘Your dear wife is convalescent.’ 

“Morse immediately took off for Connecticut, but when he arrived several days later he found his wife had already died and was buried. Morse was so heartbroken by her lonely passing that he resolved to explore some means of faster communication. 

“Seventeen years later he arrived back in the nation’s capital with a demonstration stringing wires between two committee rooms in the Capitol. Congress appropriated $30,000 to string a wire between Washington and Baltimore to convey an electronic message he called a ‘telegraph.’ Congress appropriated the money—although several members abstained, saying they still didn’t understand the technology.  On May 24, 1844, the line officially opened and Morse tapped out the memorable message in his own Morse code—‘What hath God wrought?’ 

“And so the era of instantaneous communications began. Within five years, private investors had strung thousands of miles of telegraph wires around the country and by 1861 the first line was fully connected to the West Coast, replacing the Pony Express, which only operated for 18 months. Our Internet is the great-great-grandchild of Samuel Morse’s innovation. 

“And of course the internet sprouted from the ancestor of ARPA-E which we call DARPA, a small agency in the Department of Defense designed to launch into the private sector innovations that strengthen our national defense in the same way ARPA-E hopes to strengthen our energy future. 

“ARPA-E is not the first time that our government has sought to make a great breakthrough in energy. In 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt asked Sen. Kenneth McKellar, the Tennessean who chaired the Appropriations Committee, if the senator could ‘hide $2 billion dollars in the appropriations bill’ for a secret project to win World War II. Sen. McKellar replied, ‘I have just one question, Mr. President: where in Tennessee do you want me to hide it?’ 

“That place in Tennessee turned out to be Oak Ridge, one of three secret cities that became the principal sites for the Manhattan Project. The purpose of the Manhattan Project was to end the war by finding a way to split the atom and build a bomb before Germany could. Nearly 200,000 people worked secretly in 30 different sites in three countries. President Roosevelt’s $2 billion appropriation would be $24 billion in today’s dollars. 

“According to New York Times science reporter William Laurence, ‘Into its design went millions of man-hours of what is without doubt the most concentrated intellectual effort in history.’  

“We need to harness that brainpower once again and focus it on a new and urgent national need. 

“Two years ago in Oak Ridge, I proposed that the United States launch a new Manhattan project: a five-year project to put America firmly on the path to clean energy independence – actually, a series of mini-Manhattan projects, so that we can deal with rising gasoline prices, electricity prices, clean air, climate change and national security for our country first, and—because other countries have the same urgent needs and therefore will adopt our ideas—for the rest of the world. 

“I suggested focusing on seven ‘grand challenges’ during those five years: electric vehicles, carbon recapture, solar power, nuclear fuel, advanced biofuels, green buildings and fusion.  

“While Dr. Chu is concentrating government research in several innovation hubs focused on many of the same goals, this conference reminds us that it would be unwise for government to be too prescriptive. As soon as possible, government policies, short-term subsidies and standards for encouraging clean energy should become as technology-neutral as possible, allowing the marketplace to choose among competing solutions. We should, in basketball terms, let the game come to us, whether it turns out to be nanotubes to capture-carbon exhausts, enzymes that can catalyze biofuels, advanced batteries for electric cars or strategies for recapturing the energy that is lost converting fuel into electricity. 

“Another compliment Dr. Chu deserves is his steady insistence that we not forget perhaps our most remarkable energy innovation, the one originating with the Manhattan project: nuclear power today produces 70 percent of our carbon-free electricity. President Obama has recently called for a new generation of reactors, recommended loan guarantees and appointed distinguished members of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, as well as a commission to study used nuclear fuel, which will help us begin to can catch up with what the rest of the world is doing with our invention. Sen. Jim Webb of Virginia and I have introduced legislation to create an environment that would double nuclear power production as well as authorize $1.5 billion over ten years for the grand challenges I just mentioned. 

“The America COMPETES Act which launched ARPA-E was the most far-reaching bipartisan congressional activity of the last few years. Its prime sponsors were the Senate leaders and it had 70 cosponsors, half from each political party. 

“When we asked the National Academies five years ago to tell us 10 steps that would help America maintain its competitiveness, I said that their ideas might turn out to be more important than they thought because, in Washington, most ideas fail for lack of the idea. ARPA-E is here to make sure that we have a steady supply of those ideas for America’s energy future.”