Companies are in the process of building a more competitive solar power industry, where the United States is a decided underdog. Can the government help?
First of a four-part series.
“This is our generation’s Sputnik moment,” President Obama said at the top of his State of the Union address to Congress last week. He was expressing a vision of his administration’s high-stakes campaign to help American companies claim leadership in future clean energy technologies.
Behind the rhetoric is a thrust by the administration to target federal investments in technology on ways to dramatically change energy use across the economy — intransportation, electricity generation, industrial processes and building design. It is a bet that spending taxpayer dollars today can lead to better jobs and more secure, cleaner energy for tomorrow’s economy.
It marks a fault line between the president’s goals and those of a resurgent Republican Party in Congress. “Government cannot force the people to innovate, but if we can get government out of the way, American ingenuity will emerge every time,” responded Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), the new chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
On two very competitive fronts — advanced solar power and advanced automotive batteries — the Department of Energy has already mounted a double-edged campaign. Through awards of loan guarantees, DOE is trying to shore up U.S. companies with today’s technology at the same time that it targets R&D funds from the stimulus program toward “game changing” technology breakthroughs for the future. What is happening in the solar power industry offers one telling example.