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A Year of Stimulus for High Tech

Money for advanced technology is now trickling out of government coffers.
December 23, 2009

A big chunk of February’s $787 billion federal stimulus package–about $100 billion–is devoted to discovering, developing, and deploying new technologies (“Can Technology Save the Economy?”). But spending that money takes time, and, as the year closes, much of it has only just started to trickle out into the hands of researchers and industry.

The stimulus package was designed to boost technology in several key areas. It was intended to promote the adoption of electronic medical records, which could help patients in several ways (“The Benefits of Electronic Health Records” and “Prescription: Networking”). About $20 billion has been allocated so far and, of that, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has announced $1.2 billion in grants to develop electronic records.

The Recovery Act also allocated some $7.4 billion for increasing rural broadband Internet service. Little has happened so far, although the White House did announce $182 million for 18 projects this month. The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which was given $2.5 billion for broadband, hasn’t yet published targets for distributing its money. And of the nearly $5 billion for broadband allocated to the U.S. Department of Commerce, several million has been awarded for preliminary studies, such as “to collect and verify the availability, speed, and location of broadband.” The White House promises that broadband grants will total $2 billion in the next 75 days.

The lion’s share of stimulus funding for technology development–$60 billion–went to energy, largely in the form of grants and tax credits designed to spur renewable energy and energy efficiency. The bill was a windfall for the U.S. Department of Energy, which received $39 billion in addition to its annual budget of approximately $25 billion. The department’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE), which typically gets less than $2 billion a year, won $16.8 billion, and has spent about half a billion so far. Almost all of that, $367 million, has gone to weatherization projects, which don’t do much to advance technology, but could save a lot of energy. Some $2 billion was allocated for advancing battery manufacturing, which will be key to setting up an advanced battery industry in the United States. About a billion has been awarded so far, although that money has yet to be spent.

A new agency that received its first funding under the bill, the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E), has already announced some award recipients. Of the $400 million the agency received, it’s announced awards totaling $150 million, and has started taking applications for a second round of awards (“DOE’s Agency Learns from Some Early Mistakes”).

ARPA-E has funded several technologies with the potential to bring about big changes to the energy landscape. For instance, carbon nanotube ultracapacitors that could cut the cost of hybrids (“Ultracapacitor Startup Gets a Big Boost”), and carbon nanotube membranes that could make capturing carbon dioxide cheaper (“Carbon Capture with Nanotubes”). Another project could lead to a new kind of coal plant that doesn’t release carbon dioxide, and yet doesn’t raise the price of electricity (“Using Rust to Capture CO2 from Coal Plants”).

Several new battery technologies could have a similarly transformative impact. New sodium-ion batteries (“Sodium-Ion Cells for Cheap Energy Storage”) and liquid batteries could make storing renewable energy affordable, while metal-air batteries offer the promise of cheap electric vehicles that can go hundreds of miles on a single charge (“Betting on a Metal-Air Battery Breakthrough”). The DOE’s Office of Science is also funding a number of programs exploring cutting-edge energy science, and has announced $277 million in stimulus funding for 46 “Energy Frontier Research Centers.”

Meanwhile, the DOE has started to issue some of the $125 billion in loans and loan guarantees it’s in charge of. For example, solar panel maker Solyndra received a $535 loan guarantee. The DOE has announced a total of $8.5 billion in loans for developing advanced vehicles. These will go to Ford, Nissan, and two small companies: the electric car maker Tesla Motors and the plug-in hybrid maker Fisker Automotive.

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