President Barack Obama has promised to give the Department of Energy $15 billion extra each year to spend on alternative energy R&D. Enthusiasts for government R&D might want to take a look at how well current programs are going before throwing more money at the Energy Department. For example, the Washinigton Post's "In The Loop" columnist Al Kamen reports how a project that is 600 percent over budget gets recognized by Energy Secretary Steven Chu for "project management excellence." The specific program is the National Ignition Facility which aims to develop technologies that will at long last result in nuclear fusion energy production.
Kamen outlines (scroll down) the history of this project nicely:
In June 1999, then-Energy Secretary Bill Richardson, based on info from the National Ignition Facility (NIF) giant laser project , gave a speech hailing the project as on time and within its budget. A much-chagrined Richardson found a year later that the GAO concluded the NIF would cost nearly $2 billion more than originally announced and would be delayed by at least six years, the New York Times reported.
And now, newly installed Energy Secretary Steven Chu recently recognized the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), which handles the NIF, for project management excellence, something the watchdog Project on Government Oversight (POGO) says it was "shocked to learn."
"The most recent cost estimate is $5-6 billion," POGO said in a letter Wednesday to Chu, "more than 600 percent over budget and at least eight years behind schedule."
The project leaders respond that the costs and delays occurred because the NIF was revamped. Of course, this is the perennial excuse of government contractors. According to Kamen, POGO suggests…
…it might be better to hold off on the kudos until we see if the thing works.
If you are a subscriber to Reason you will be getting a first look at my cover article in the next issue detailing my adventures as an energy regulator (as a callow young man) back in the 1970s and what it portends for Obama's ambitious plans for radically transforming America's energy economy through government R&D and subsidies.