NEW HAVEN, Conn. -- Recipients of the Department of Energy's Recovery Act grants had better beware: spend stimulus money quickly or expect to hear from Uncle Sam.
Last Friday, the Department of Energy's Matt Rogers, Senior Advisor for Recovery Act Implementation, spoke to a packed house at the Yale Climate and Energy Institute's Clean Energy Innovation Conference. A graduate of the Yale School of Management, Rogers emphasized the DOE's new tough-love approach at his alma mater.
"We now have about 5,000 recipients. Those that aren't spending fast enough, they get a phone call from me," said Rogers. "We have a conversation about what the American taxpayer is expecting and what we're expecting and how you are going to get a faster plan and hit your milestones on time [and] on budget."
The DOE modeled its advanced research program, ARPA-E, after the Department of Defense's widely acclaimed DARPA program. Now the DOE is also following DARPA's blueprint for holding beneficiaries responsible.
"DARPA has always been very aggressive in the way they monitor the projects that they fund," said Alessandro Gomez, a Yale Professor of Mechanical Engineering, on Saturday. "I have been a beneficiary of some of [DARPA's] largesse and when they come in, they hold biweekly teleconferences and you better have something to say."
"When somebody is asking you to tell what your progress is every two weeks, it lights a fire underneath you," added Venrock Vice President and cleantech investor Matthew Nordan.
For their part, government agencies and companies that have received funds have periodically complained that they've had to staff up to spend the money and comply with any barriers -- such as getting permits on various projects -- to proceed. Still, according to the DOE, the agency's discipline is already paying dividends.
"The phone calls seem to be working," said Rogers. "We are seeing an accelerated rate of spending."
The pace of spending is important to the DOE's Recovery Act Team because the stimulus bill called on the agency not only to transform America's energy policies in the long term, but also to create jobs in the short term.
As a result, researchers and entrepreneurs aren't the only beneficiaries who should expect to hear regularly from the DOE. So too should government officials and community organizations. After the Obama Administration was criticized for being too slow to implement its weatherization program, the Department of Energy stepped up its effort to hold accountable both state governments and the community action agencies (CAAs) states pay to provide weatherization services.
"Before, what would happen is the Department [of Energy] would give each state some money, the states would give [the 900] CAAs money and we would hope for the best. We started down that path and it was not working," said Rogers. "In response, we set up a managerial intervention. Now each state and each CAA has performance targets."
The DOE's Assistant Secretary for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy has since called every Governor to review progress. "When you call the Governor and you say, 'Mr. Governor, at the end of the month, we are going to put up a list that shows that your state is not exactly leading the pack in terms of its performance,' the state's performance improves," said Rogers.
Thanks to the new approach, the DOE's program led to the weatherization of about 25,000 homes in March, finally meeting its monthly target.
Yoni Cohen is a JD-MBA student at the Yale Law School and the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. A former reporter for Fox Sports, he helped to organize the Yale Clean Energy Innovation Conference.