The one part of Obama’s stimulus that Romney loves

August 16, 2012

Mitt Romney's assault on President Obama's stimulus is a central pillar of his campaign: In ads, statements, and speeches, he's attacked the law as a giveaway to the president's "friends, donors, campaign supporters, special interest groups." But buried inside Romney's 59-point, 160-page economic plan is a promise to invest federal money in a new energy R&D program that was one of the stimulus's biggest success stories.


President Obama listens to Dennis Hartman as they look at rechargeable car batteries during his tour of Smith Electric Vehicles in Kansas City, Mo. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais-AP)

Modeled on the successful Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, "ARPA-E" was created in 2007 during the Bush administration with strong bipartisan support but remained unfunded until Obama injected $415 million into the program as part of the 2009 stimulus bill. Legislators added more money to its budget later on, bringing the total ARPA-E spending to $520 million on some 180 projects. The program is meant to help bridge the so-called "Valley of Death" that lies between basic scientific research findings and their implementation in the real world outside the lab, as I've explained before. ARPA-E has drawn on stimulus funds to invest in the development of tobacco-based fuel, laser drilling for geothermal energy, lithium batteries, and other new technologies.

It's the precisely kind of federal intervention that research scientists and energy firms have been demanding: a link between basic research and development and demonstration projects that could ultimately find their way to the commercial market. And it's among the reasons why Time reporter (and WaPo alum) Michael Grunwald believes the stimulus "was the biggest and most transformative energy bill in history."

One firm that received a $4 million stimulus grant in 2010 has now created a "lithium-ion battery has broken the world's record for energy density at 400 watt-hours per kilogram — more than double today's batteries," USA Today explains. Another ARPA-E grant supports the development of a battery "to run a car for 500 miles on a single charge."*

That helps explain why ARPA-E has been one of the few stimulus-backed programs to attract support from conservative think-tanks and congressional Republicans, garnering praise from the likes of the Heritage Foundation and Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.).

Romney has jumped on the pro-ARPA-E bandwagon as well. "Mitt Romney believes the [DARPA] model—ensuring longterm, non-political sources of funding for a wide variety of competing, earlystage technologies—holds the most potential for achieving significant advances in the energy sector. Investment should be channeled through programs, such as 'ARPA-E,'" his economic plan declares (PDF). In fact, it's one of the few areas of any kind where Romney stresses the importance of government spending. "Government has a role to play in innovation in the energy industry. History shows that the United States has moved forward in astonishing ways thanks to national investment in basic research and advanced technology."

However, not all Republicans are on board with boosting funds for ARPA-E—chief among them being Rep. Paul Ryan. As my colleague Brad Plumer points out, Ryan was among the House Republicans to vote for an bill that would cut $50 million from ARPA-E funding in 2011. The House appropriations committee recently passed a bigger, $75 million cut to ARPA-E that would bring spending down to $200 million. "I do not believe that the government ought to be in the business of picking winners and losers,” Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) explained to ClimateWire last year.

That's the same line that the Romney campaign has used to explain the GOP candidate's opposition to government energy programs like the wind-energy tax credit. But with earlier stages of energy R&D, he and Obama are on the same page.

*Update: I quoted Grunwald as describing these ARPA-E projects as "creating a battery-manufacturing industry for electric vehicles almost entirely from scratch." In fact, he was describing a separate, $2 billion program for advanced-battery manufacturing.

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