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Moniz leads a quiet revolution in clean energy

Von David Ignatius


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Washington - So much of America's future is at stake in the 2016 presidential election. But let's focus for a moment on just one area - energy and the environment - where the Obama administration has made startling progress that could be reversed if either of the GOP front-runners becomes president.

Energy Secretary Ernie Moniz, arguably President Obama's best Cabinet appointment, has been leading a quiet revolution in clean-energy technology. Innovation is transforming this industry, costs are plummeting and entrepreneurs are devising radical new systems that create American jobs - in addition to protecting the planet.

The leading GOP candidates, Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, offer know-nothing denials of this march of science. Trump told the Washington Post last month that all that's happening is "a change in weather. I'm not a great believer in man-made climate change." Cruz told an audience in New Hampshire in January that "climate change is the perfect pseudoscientific theory," propounded by "big-government politician[s]." If either is elected president, you have to assume he will try to gut clean-energy programs.

Here's a suggestion for any fact-based, technology-respecting candidate in either party: Promise that, if elected, you'll try to persuade Moniz to remain in place. An MIT physicist by training, he has proved to be one of this administration's most skillful players, as illustrated by his decisive, behind-the-scenes role in the Iran nuclear talks.

Moniz showed me the future of energy technology last month during a visit to one of his pet projects - the "innovation summit" of the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, or "ARPA-E," for short. As the name implies, it tries to do for energy what DARPA has done for defense science. A tour of the exhibits shows why the program is succeeding: It connects with the market. Since 2010, 45 projects that were initially ARPA-E seeded have received an additional $1.25 billion in follow-on private funding.

First, some Energy Department numbers that illustrate the transformation that's underway: The cost of purchasing energy-efficient LED lights has dropped 90 percent since 2008; the cost of producing large-scale solar energy has fallen 60 percent over that period; prices for wind energy and efficient batteries have declined by over 40 percent.

As costs have fallen, usage has increased radically. Since 2008, the number of LED light bulbs installed in the U.S. has increased from 400,000 to 78 million. Wind energy production has tripled; production of solar energy has increased nearly 20-fold. And scientists say we're still fairly early in the cycle of innovation and cost reduction.

Moniz describes three ARPA-E projects he thinks are especially promising. One company is building an advanced photovoltaic cell that could, by 2020, reduce the cost of installed solar energy by 50 percent from its 2009 level. Another company is creating new systems that could significantly cut power use by electric motors, which currently consume about 30 percent of America's electricity. A third company is building a new kind of airborne turbine that could capture wind energy from 85 percent of America's land mass, compared with 15 percent today.

Wandering through the ARPA-E exhibition hall with Moniz - looking at a few of the more than 200 presentations - you get a sense of how fast new technology is being applied to big, real-world problems.

A company called Rebellion Photonics demonstrates a system for chemical imaging that can spot gas leaks and other potential problems before disaster strikes. A consortium of universities and private companies, dubbed TERRA, shows off robots that can assess biofuel crops and select the best genetic traits, doing in four hours what now takes seven days. A company called Local Motors pitches a car built with 3-D printing. And yes, you'll be able to make a copy of the Mustang you drove back in high school, if you want.

This intense interaction between technology and the marketplace is what powers innovation in America. Contrary to right-wing myth, the government in modern times has been a key incubator and facilitator for business. DARPA's research spawned the Internet and its world-transforming networks, and it's now helping to drive the astonishing progress of machine learning and autonomous systems. Thanks to Moniz, ARPA-E is having a similar catalytic effect with energy-related technologies.

This political season has been a horror show, making even those who are optimistic about America's future begin to wonder. A visit to Moniz's innovation summit was a bracing reminder of why, as Warren Buffett likes to say, people have never gone wrong betting on America. It also illustrates the importance of having world-class scientists like Moniz oversee the intersection of government and technology.

(c) 2016, Washington Post Writers Group

David Ignatius was the executive editor of the "International Herald Tribune". His column also appears in the "Washington Post".