I doubt Atlantic senior editor Alexis Madrigal timed the publication of his new book Powering the Dream to coincide with the budget battles currently raging in Washington, but the timing is relevant nonetheless. Madrigal's tour of the forgotten history of green technology is more than just an entertaining jaunt back through time. As Time's Bryan Walsh noted in a recent review, the history he documents is instructive to our current energy policy debate.
In particular, it sheds light on the importance of sustained political commitment to the funding of the research and development (R&D) that is critical to developing next generation energy technologies. Writes Madrigal:
[President Reagan] quickly proposed halving the [Solar Energy Research Institute] budget and cutting overall solar spending by 60 percent. In particular, those technologies closest to commercialization were the ones that would receive the least support.
Programs that had just begun, like durability testing for solar collector materials and better standards for solar water heaters, were eliminated. By all accounts, the Reagan administration's attitude toward solar energy R&D had a 'profound and mostly negative' impact on solar energy programs in the United States.
Today we face a similar choice, the outcome of which will substantially influence America's energy future. While the details of the apparent 2011 budget compromise have not yet been released, the 2011 and 2012 budget proposals presented by each party offer a stark difference in policy choice. The short version is that the Obama vision would increase clean energy R&D, while House Republicans' budgets have proposed significant cuts.