A Nation of Pilot Projects?

More news this weekend that the Obama administration continues to pursue its unheralded campaign to reverse retrograde Bush-era policies and put the nation on a more sustainable footing. The president announced that the Department of Energy will award $2 billion in conditional commitments from the Recovery Act to two solar companies for plants in Arizona, Colorado, and Indiana, which together will create over 5,000 jobs.

The president's heart is clearly in this cause. In his address, he said:

Already, I've seen the payoff from these investments. I've seen once-shuttered factories humming with new workers who are building solar panels and wind turbines; rolling up their sleeves to help America win the race for the clean energy economy.

However, as good as it is, the announcement leaves a lingering question: On cutting-edge infrastructure issues such as solar, will we continue to be a nation of pilot projects? Or will we take any quantum leaps and achieve actual national policy?

There's nothing to quarrel with in the announcements themselves. Abengoa Solar will build the plant in Arizona, which, when complete, will provide enough clean energy to power 70,000 homes. Over 70 percent of the components and products used in construction will be manufactured here in the U.S.

Abound Solar Manufacturing is building the Colorado and Indiana plants, which will produce millions of state-of-the-art solar panels each year -- in Indiana's case, using an empty Chrysler factory.

In announcing the plants on July 4th weekend, the president said:

But what this weekend reminds us, more than any other, is that we are a nation that has always risen to the challenges before it. We are a nation that, 234 years ago, declared our independence from one of the greatest empires the world had ever known. We are a nation that mustered a sense of common purpose to overcome Depression and fear itself... I know America will write our own destiny once more.

But the question is whether the scale, scope, and ambition of our solar policy rises to the level of the president's language. The Recovery Act monies, and the policies underlying them, have been attacked left and right for failing to deliver on a set of clear national priorities. The stimulus dollars have been spread so wide and thin that they've been vulnerable to attacks both on pork and policy grounds.

That two solar plants are heralded as helping America "win the race for a clean economy" is the same pattern we've seen elsewhere in the collision between the clean economy campaign and today's toxic budgetary and political environment. We saw the pattern in high-speed rail. As PPI's Mark Reutter has noted, the administration announced $8 billion in stimulus funds that would go to a handful of projects. But without additional administration pressure, those funds are only being followed by $1 billion of congressional authorization. As 100 members of Congress wrote the president recently, "[G]iven budget constraints, we cannot continue to rely on general authorizations and appropriations to finance high-speed rail. We need to identify a dedicated revenue source for high-speed rail, and we need your help to do that."

We have also seen the pattern in nuclear energy, where the administration took the bold step of announcing loan guarantees for two new nuclear plants in Georgia, the first built in a generation. However, the president's language again made the actual commitment pale in comparison to the challenge. In announcing the guarantees, he cited the fact that there are, today, 56 nuclear reactors under construction around the world: 21 in China; six in South Korea, and five in India. He said:

Whether it's nuclear energy or solar or wind energy, if we fail to invest in the technologies of tomorrow, then we're going to be importing those technologies instead of exporting them. We will fall behind. Jobs will be produced overseas instead of here in the United States of America. And that's not a future that I accept.

The ambitions are noble and the rhetoric stirring, but the question is whether we really are shaping a future here -- or just a set of ambitious but singular pilot projects.

Yes, there is too little money in annual authorizations for serious infrastructure. But as infrastructure expert Norm Anderson has recently written for PPI, "The financing issue -- not a surprise for anyone in the infrastructure business -- is the number one problem facing the industry."

This is all the more reason the administration should follow the stirring rhetoric about competitiveness and "writing our destiny" by creating a new institution, such as an infrastructure bank of the type proposed by Sen. Chris Dodd (D-CT) and Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) and supported by the president in the past, that would create a long-term funding source and the energy for true national policy.

This piece also appeared at the Progressive Policy Institute's blog, Progressive Fix.