Katherine Bourzac

A View from Katherine Bourzac

Valley Entrepreneurs Vent Frustration at Department of Energy

Cleantech entrepreneurs urge Washington to make better use of Bay Area intellectual capital.

  • February 26, 2010

At an event in downtown San Francisco on Tuesday, a representative of the Obama administration went before a gathering of Silicon Valley cleantech entrepreneurs to spread the good news about what’s resulted from the stimulus package, and to get their feedback.

Peter Roehrig, a political appointee in the Department of Energy’s office of energy efficiency and renewable energy, pointed to numbers released by the Congressional Budget Office that day suggesting that stimulus funding led to as many as 2.1 million jobs by the end of last year. The Department of Energy administrates $36.7 billion of the stimulus funds. Part of this, Roehrig noted, is going to a program to encourage energy-efficient retrofits for cities–a program being dubbed “cash for caulkers.”

But the crowd at the “Meet the DOE” event at Nixon Peabody LLP on Tuesday didn’t seem to agree that things were going so well, and used the Q&A session to vent their frustration about the lack of funding for energy startups. Several people asked why big, well-capitalized companies like DuPont and GM recieved funds while their start-ups can’t get off the ground. Others noted that stimulus funding seemed to favor big companies, while on the other end the ARPA-E program favors very promising but less proven innovations; companies somewhere in the middle don’t know where to turn. One man, representing a company developing an add-on for engines to make them fuel flexible, stood up with excitement as he told Roehrig that Washington needs to figure out a way to take better advantage of the intellectual capital concentrated in the Bay Area.

Roehrig, left to answer for the US government, took the criticism in his stride and deflected suggestions that all it takes is a grant writer and a lobbyist to win funding. Money for new energy technologies was indeed built into the stimulus package, he said, but all with the end of guaranteeing jobs–and bigger companies can make a better argument that they’ll create jobs. Roehrig encouraged the companies to come to Washington to meet with DOE representatives personally, but no one seemed much comforted when he expressed that to help solve these problems, like everyone else in the room, he’s hoping the economy improves.

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