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Flip the Switch: It’s Time to Roll on Energy R&D

Federal dollars and leadership drive energy innovation in the United States. That was true in 1942, when Enrico Fermi’s team of physicists and engineers created the world’s first sustained nuclear reaction. And it was true in 1991, when researchers at the Solar Energy Research Institute (later renamed the National Renewable Energy Laboratory) developed wind turbine blades that improved on the existing technology by producing 30 percent more electricity.

Light switch

One of the many things that U.S. government must do to move the economy towards a low-carbon future is to support research and development in energy technologies. Wednesday morning, the House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming will hear from an expert panel on what needs to be done, as they talk about “Investing in the Future: R&D needs to meet America’s Energy and Climate Challenges.”

Often, discussion of energy R&D focuses too narrowly on the possibility of transcendent scientific breakthroughs, like a cheap and practical hydrogen car, which have failed to materialize after decades of work—and would anyway take too long to commercialize to have a significant impact on emissions in the near future. As Center for American Progress Senior Fellow Joe Romm has argued in a variety of venues, including in a recent debate on the, we have the technologies now that can preserve the planet and rejuvenate the world economy—we just need to focus on developing, scaling, and deploying them. Writes Romm: “If we want to preserve the health and well-being of future generations, then focusing government policy and resources on speeding up existing technology deployment is far more important than focusing them on breakthrough technology development.” Earlier this year, Romm argued in Nature for rapid deployment of the “stabilization wedges first proposed by Robert Socolow and Stephen Pacala.

Science Progress adviser Tom Kalil has argued on multiple occasions for doubling federal funding for key research agencies, including the Department of Energy Office of Science. In his innovation report for CAP, he offers a fistful of energy technology advances that merit federal support more then the myopic hydrogen car:

  • Nanotechnology-based solar cells as cheap as paint
  • The use of synthetic biology to create organisms that can convert sunlight directly to next-generation fuels
  • Improvement in battery technology for plug-in hybrids
  • Cost-effective energy storage that allows for increased use of intermittent sources of energy such as wind and solar
  • Advances in carbon capture-and-storage technologies for responsible use of coal
  • Predictive modeling of combustion devices to design more efficient engines, using supercomputers capable of quadrillions of calculations per second
  • Solid-state lighting that is 50 percent more efficient than today’s compact fluorescents
  • An “intelligent grid” that is self-healing, offers special rates for purchases of energy-efficient appliances, provides real-time pricing to reduce peak load, and can handle increased use of distributed energy resources
  • Smart windows that can go from clear to translucent in an instant, saving billions of dollars in lighting, cooling, and heating costs
  • Zero-energy buildings that produce all of their energy from renewable sources.

CAP also has a plan for how to focus and organize national efforts in energy R&D. John Podesta, Peter Ogden, and John Deutch argued in “A New Strategy to Spur Energy Innovation” that in addition to doubling, at a minimum, current energy R&D program funding, the government needs strong leadership in order to prioritize:

  • Creating an interagency Energy Innovation Council to develop a multiyear National Energy RD&D strategy for the United States
  • Launching a sustained and integrated energy R&D program in key areas
  • Establishing an Energy Technology Corporation to manage demonstration projects
  • Creating an energy technology career path within the civil service.

Energy R&D will help us save the planet and create millions of green jobs, but it can also catalyze public enthusiasm for science. As Chris Mooney lamented in a recent column, “Yes, everybody is talking about energy these days. But they’re not necessarily talking about it as a scientific opportunity so much as a business one. The poster child for energy innovation today is T. Boone Pickens, rather than a scientist or engineer. And that says it all.”

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