BLOG POST

If You're Not Failing, You're Not Trying

,

In today’s New York Times, David Brooks tut-tuts about the “overreach, misjudgments and disappointments” of the nation’s recent push for green technology. He’s far from alone. The bankruptcy this week of battery-maker A123 Systems has brought the full chorus of clean energy naysayers – from the “government shouldn’t pick winners” folks in the alto section to the “crony capitalism” people among the tenors – to full volume.

So, it’s time to take a step back – way back – and remember just why clean energy is important, and why public investment is necessary to bring it into being.

The main rationale for clean energy is and always has been the environmental imperative. There are many ways to create jobs, but there are fewer ways to cut global warming pollution, let alone reduce the many other environmental and health impacts of fossil fuel production and use (i.e., “Horizon, Deepwater”). When environmental concerns and climate change fall out of the national conversation - as they have recently - it should come as little surprise that clean energy policies come in for tough questioning.

The environmental movement bears some responsibility for this state of affairs. In recent years, greens have tended to lead with arguments about the economic rationale for clean energy – green jobs! energy independence! – rather than make the environmental case for getting the nation off fossil fuels. That emphasis on economics arose out of the (correct) impression that Americans in a time of recession are primarily concerned about the economy. But the long-term effect can be seen in the presidential campaign, where climate change and environmental concerns have receded so far into the background as to be virtually invisible.

But here’s the thing: regardless of whether environmental groups or presidential candidates are talking about the environment, our environmental problems have not gone away. We still need to curb carbon pollution, immediately and dramatically, to prevent the worst impacts of global warming. Coal plants still do, in the immortal words of Mitt Romney, “kill people.” Fracking and offshore drilling are still threats to our health, our water, and our precious ecosystems. In the broader context of our environmental challenges, the investments that Brooks characterizes as “overreach” suddenly look far less ambitious. In fact, they look downright puny.

Yet, to a large degree, the investments we have made in clean energy are working. America produces twice as much solar and wind power as we did just four years ago. Our cars are more energy-efficient than ever. America will produce less global warming pollution in 2012 than it has in 16 years. Those dramatic changes didn’t just happen, and they aren’t entirely the result of the recession or shifts in the fossil fuel industry. It has taken forward-looking policies at the state and federal level – renewable energy standards, energy efficiency standards, tax credits for wind and solar power, new fuel economy standards for cars, and many more – to make them a reality.

Are those results “disappointments”? In the sense that we are still far from doing what is necessary to address the climate challenge, yes. But in the context of American history, no way. We may not have achieved the clean energy promised land yet, but we have certainly turned a significant corner.

Which brings us to Solyndra and A123. If, in football terms, the gains America has made on clean energy in recent years have been the result of a series of four-yard runs up the middle – a wind farm here, a solar panel there – then Solyndra and A123 were the equivalent of long bombs, attempts to change the entire trajectory of the game. In Solyndra’s case, for example, the company’s bet on thin-film solar technology was one that looked promising during the silicon shortages of 2007 and 2008. But Solyndra zigged just as the world chose to zag, something that happens with increasing regularity in our fast-paced innovation economy. Just ask AOL. Or MySpace. Or Research in Motion.

Ah, you say, but isn’t the very act of government “picking winners” flawed? Here is the biggest misconception about the government’s clean energy investment program: the federal greentech effort was never about “picking winners” – it was about betting the field. The U.S. invested in electric car firms such as A123 … and in firms developing next-generation biofuels. It invested in thin-film firms like Solyndra … and in firms seeking to develop other solar technologies. It promoted energy efficiency … and various kinds of renewable energy … and technologies to reduce the environmental impacts of fossil fuels, such as carbon capture and storage. The federal government’s balanced portfolio of investments recognized that technological and market breakthroughs are often unpredictable – they result from experimentation, trial and error, and learning from failure.

It also recognized that transitioning the world’s largest economy from fossil fuels to clean energy requires time, money and – yes – the taking of risks. But the potential benefits for our health, our environment, and future generations are incalculable.

So, when David Brooks or others take the failure of a couple of clean energy firms as reason to abandon the entire greentech project (or, almost worse in my opinion, to run for the shelter of policy ideas like a carbon tax that are unlikely to happen any time soon), one is tempted to respond by saying, “buddy, you ain’t seen nothing yet.” A serious commitment to a clean energy future will result in both more sparkling successes – like the dramatic growth in wind and solar power in the U.S. in the last decade – as well as more failures such as the bankruptcies of Solyndra and A123.

As the old maxim goes, “if you’re not failing, you’re not trying.” At a time of massive environmental challenges we need to try harder than ever to repower our economy with clean energy. This is no time to turn back.