Break Down Bureaucracy to Get Breakthrough Technologies

March 4th, 2011

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Washington policy wonks scoffed when the Obama Administration announced last year that the Department of Energy and Pentagon were going to collaborate in developing new clean energy technologies. They thought such a shot-gun marriage was impractical and  impossible to even get off the ground. Instead, it is proving to be model for the kind of culture of cooperation between government agencies that we desperately need if we are going to move to clean energy to save money, create new jobs and reduce our dependence on foreign oil.

The latest evidence of this is Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus’ announcement of a joint initiative between the Department of Defense and the Department of Energy’s Advanced Projects Research Agency-Energy (ARPA-e).  Our nation’s government laboratories are some of the greatest drivers of science and new technology in the world.  But moving new technologies from the labs and into the private sector has been a challenge for decades. As far back as 1980, Congress tried to ease the way for lab ideas to get to market by encouraging commercialization of innovations and changing patent rules. Despite these and other government actions in support of technology transfer, a stockpile of ideas and prototypes remain trapped in the confines of the laboratories.

This is where the Defense Department comes in. The Pentagon is a huge market unto itself that has helped countless new technologies scale up to meet military needs before breaking into the private sector market:  including GPS, the microprocessor, and that small thing called the internet.  Given their  track record, we should not doubt that the impact the U.S. military industrial complex could have in transforming  our electricity market if it were fully engaged in moving to clean energy. After all, we are talking about the largest single energy consuming entity in the world with a humongous procurement budget.

This is not lost on the Defense and Energy Department officials. The Pentagon’s military and civilian leaders face huge and growing electricity and fuel bills at a time of significant budget constraints and the need to secure power for domestic bases and overseas operations.  At the Department of Energy, officials continue to search, sometimes in vain, for ways to create markets for the new technologies ARPA-E and other programs are helping to develop.

As the military and DOE continue to breakdown government stovepipes with the rollout of their clean energy partnership, we can expect more cynical comments from the blogs and twitter accounts of armchair policymakers. There is a glaring and urgent need to get cheaper, clean energy for our military facilities and soldiers, sailors, airmen and women and Marines.

This is exactly how innovation happens – whether it was something as big as the Internet or seemingly trivial as duct tape. Removing barriers between ideas and markets, in this case ARPA-E and the Pentagon, can get us to advanced battery, a new form of electric generation, or some new device that until recently was the stuff of science fiction.