PALM SPRINGS, CALIF. — The Department of Energy’s Senior Advisor Matt Rogers has one of the best and worst jobs in greentech: He’s one of the leaders in charge of handing out the $36 billion in U.S. stimulus funds for clean power and energy efficiency projects. But the hard work is almost over — at the Cleantech Investor Summit on Wednesday afternoon Rogers said that the agency has selected the companies and projects for about $31 billion of the funds, $23.7 billion of that has been sent out to companies, and about $2 billion has actually been spent by the companies that received the funds.
Now comes the true test that will determine if Rogers and the DOE’s work has been successful: Will that $36 billion in grants and loans, which so far is going to 7,000 recipients, deliver real jobs? The agency has until September 30 of this year to distribute funds under the Recovery Act, and Rogers says his job now is “to make sure recipients start hiring and making money.” The first calender year for these funds is very important, said Rogers.
If we are successful, we’ll be setting the agenda for clean power and energy efficiency industries, and we’ll have remade the way the DOE works, said Rogers. Success is if the clean power companies that received funds become major contributors to the jobs story by the middle of this year when these funds really hit the market place, said Rogers.
He didn’t touch on what would happen if they don’t succeed. But I can imagine: The U.S. public revolts if very few jobs are created despite the government spending such a large portion of the stimulus funds. That could lead to next-generation energy technology being set back a decade and little public funding followup after the stimulus funds are spent.
No one wants that to happen, and there’s no doubt that Rogers and the DOE have been working extremely hard to find solid projects that create jobs and boost the U.S. economy. Rogers and Secretary of Energy Steven Chu have in a matter of mere months transformed the methods and pace at which the DOE selects and allocates funding. The environment of the DOE before Chu and Rogers came in was used to working slowly and with a lot of bureaucracy — for example the DOE let loan guarantees hang in limbo for years.
Rogers said he had daily meetings to dramatically speed up the process — the Secretary is an impatient guy, Rogers quipped. While the DOE commonly took two years to select companies and three years to allocate funds, Rogers and Chu handed out the first set of competitive awards in 168 days.
Rogers and Chu have also been pushing hard for selecting better projects than the DOE has in the past. “What keeps the secretary up at night is us funding a perpetual motion machine,” laughed Rogers (we receive a proposal for one of those per week, he added). But to raise the level of selection, Chu and Rogers turned the process into a peer review process that included 4,000 academics and industry-leaders reviewing the proposals.
Even though the $36 billion in stimulus funds is one of the largest U.S. public funds for cleantech ever, there have been way more great applications filed and proposals submitted. Rogers said 70 to 80 percent of the applicants for ARPA-e funds were turned down — there were 3,500 proposals for 37 APRA-e grants. There was about 350 that we would have loved to fund. Companies that actually did receive the ARPA-e grants tended to have excellent fundamental science, and also had a path and team to execute it.
The next couple of months will be crucial in terms of if Rogers and the new DOE will be successful. The stimulus winners will need to show a lot of jobs and a lot of growth to convince the already skeptical public. I just hope that even if there’s some impatience and finger-pointing in the short term, that the strategy will ultimately be able to prove that a green economy actually does deliver green jobs.