This op-ed was originally published by Bloomberg Law on September 26, 2022. Click here to read the entire piece.
Paul Dabbar, former under secretary for Science and Energy, and Rich Powell, CEO of ClearPath, say the agency needs more leaders with deep industry experience and knowledge of commercial projects if the US is to stay ahead of China and Russia in new energy innovation.
America’s energy innovation engine has been a well-oiled machine for nearly 50 years. We’re on the verge of building what could be the greatest energy technologies we’ve ever seen, but you know the saying—it’s hard to find good help.
The bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act funded demonstration projects authorized in the Energy Act signed by President Donald Trump in 2020. It was the biggest US Department of Energy project since the Manhattan project.
The IIJA included $27 billion for grid infrastructure and $21.5 billion for a new Office of Clean Energy Demonstrations (OCED). If done right, this investment may be our key to beating China and Russia in the race for next-generation energy technologies.
Historically, DOE has been a giant nuclear defense and science R&D agency. It has focused on building and maintaining nuclear weapons, power plants for subs and carriers, not to mention the Human Genome Project, giant particle colliders, and other world-altering innovations like quantum computing. It owns and operates the 17 National Laboratories, building and running cutting-edge science infrastructure.
The Department, however, has little experience with specific ready-for-first-deployment commercial energy technology. In an August report, the Department’s Office of the Inspector General raised similar concerns outlining risk areas such as insufficient staffing, circumvention of project controls, insufficient project oversight, and inadequate internal and recipient-level controls DOE’s team has brilliant minds and policy expertise.
But even in the applied offices, they are staffed with early-stage technology R&D funding experts, not people with experience building commercial-scale energy facilities.
The agency’s Loan Programs Office, created in 2005 to bridge new technologies with available capital, has had some incredible wins—including Tesla—but also some high-profile losses. Some projects failed simply because the right people weren’t in place to assist with the selection process. The current office has brought in leaders with deep industry experience to fill gaps and get things done.
Congressional oversight to ensure these programs succeed is obvious, but there are three internal policy changes DOE could implement.
First, DOE needs to immediately hire both political and career employees with experience delivering power plants and other energy facilities on time and on budget.
That means senior energy engineers, private sector technology investment leaders, former employees of large utilities or equipment manufacturers, plant developers, corporate capital allocators, and fund investors who have depth in building commercial projects.
Click here to read the full article