It’s been hard to avoid the elephant in the room at the fourth annual National Clean Energy Summit in Las Vegas on Tuesday. While the clean energy industry was eager to talk about the latest cleantech breakthroughs and clean power projects, the reality is that the clean energy industry is facing a very difficult near-term future in terms of funding, with the stimulus package dollars coming to an end, potential budget cuts looming for the Department of Energy, some venture capitalists going cold on cleantech, and no clear major carbon policies on the horizon in the U.S.
Both Vice President Joe Biden and Energy Secretary Steven Chu gave a nod to an upcoming crossroads in their keynotes at the event. Both leaders sought to make the case about what would happen if the DOE had significant budget cuts, highlighting the importance of programs like its ARPA-E grant project, and the loan guarantee program. Biden noted that the ARPA-E program has recently seen five of its grant companies receive follow-on private capital, including Phononic Devices, Primus Power, OPX Biotechnologies, Transphorm and an energy storage project at Stanford.
Chu said that despite the recession and potential budget cuts, it is important to focus on keeping the momentum of the clean energy industry going, particularly in times of stress. Look at the Civil War, one of America’s darkest hours, which produced landmarks like the Land Grant act that increased agricultural productivity, and the transcontinental railroad, which led to nationwide commerce said Chu. We can do the same things for the clean energy industry, even when there are these macroeconomic stresses, noted Chu.
Biden put it as: “Our nation has a simple choice. A choice about what country we are going to be. A country that rises to the occasion, overcomes the odds, and leads the world. Or are we going to be a follower nation?” Later on in his speech he added, “We are at an inflection point.”
Chu also focused on three things that the U.S. can do to keep the momentum going for the clean power industry:
- We need to invest in basic research in energy and education. This research will bring down the cost of clean power and help us remain competitive.
- We need to enact a clean energy standard as a pull for the deployment of clean power projects. That wouldn’t use tax dollars and wouldn’t pick winners, noted Chu.
- We need a Clean Energy development agency. This could support action plans to support clean energy plans.
Execs in the clean power industry attending the event that I talked to seemed inspired by the leaders’ talks.