State of the Planet

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The U.S. Can Still Take the Lead in Clean Energy Investment

By Ali Zaidi for the Center on Global Energy Policy

wind turbine behind power lines, clean energy
The San Gorgonio Wind Farm in California. Photo: Tom Fassbender via Flickr

Over the past decade, research investment in clean energy yielded stunning results for the nation and the world. Yet individual technology stories—like high-efficiency, light-emitting diode (LED) lamps, which now sell for a few hundredths of their cost in 2008—hide the headline: Although they provide compelling metrics, individual technology stories do not capture the system-level transformation taking place.

Today, the grid no longer divides neatly into consumers and producers, and it lives as much on the internet as on poles and wires. Electricity is reaching into industrial processes and the transportation sector. Power is possible without (air) pollution.

ali zaidi
Ali Zaidi is a fellow at Columbia’s Center on Global Energy Policy.

But we need more breakthroughs. We need to improve the economics of shipping and storing zero-carbon electrons, put more of them to use when we manufacture or move things, and accelerate the pace with which we reduce both carbon emissions and energy poverty. Energy innovation still has so much more to contribute to our economy, national security, and wellbeing. That is why it makes sense that the United States continues to lead on energy innovation.

Our universities and national laboratories remain engines for invention and discovery. Our entrepreneurs and private capital continue to build and test and scale new technologies. And yes, our federal government still leads on public investment in clean energy research.

To be sure, over the past year and a half, the federal government’s role in supporting basic and applied research has come into question. But a strong track record overwhelmed the skepticism. As a result, Mission Innovation—a global push to increase public investment in basic and applied research focused on clean energy— has stayed our operative ambition, and the United States is still making progress against the goals articulated as part of its Mission Innovation commitment.

When President Obama launched Mission Innovation (which I helped develop in my role in the administration) alongside 19 other nations and 28 private sector leaders led by Bill Gates in November 2015, the U.S. federal government was spending about $5.1 billion annually on clean energy research. Before the end of that year, Congress increased federal investment in the area by 25 percent. That meant in fiscal year 2016, the U.S. government was able to invest $6.4 billion on clean energy research.

That is real money.

After holding the overall budget steady, Congress acted decisively again this year. As a result, fiscal year 2018 spending on clean energy research will likely reach almost $7.1 billion. From the stage in Paris to the present day, the U.S. budget for clean energy research has likely increased almost 38 percent. And the earliest signs of action for fiscal year 2019 in both the Senate and House of Representatives—with even the House considering a $500 million increase for energy programs—suggest that the United States will continue to expand its investment in this space.

Investment is important, but so is impact.

If the Mission Innovation increases in investment are to deliver on their full potential for our economy, national security, and wellbeing, we need to remember three things—and they all relate to how we approach investment and innovation.

First, we need to remember that the federal government’s ability to accelerate the pace of innovation through investment depends not only on the amount invested—but also on the way those dollars are put to work. We know from past experience that different mechanisms are needed to accelerate innovation in different contexts. Just as no one technology is likely to win the energy race, we need different strides and shoes for different runners and different legs of the race.

For some research challenges, we need to go big on basic science. We need to fund post-doctoral fellows at universities, world class facilities, and lab equipment. For other research challenges, we need to start integrating the knowledge that already exists—we need hubs where scientists and engineers work across disciplines. And for other research challenges, we need to abandon the technology roadmaps we have by testing disruptive, high-risk approaches or designing new, ambitious moon-shots.

Second, we need to remember that while congressional leadership in driving clean energy research forward is invaluable, there is no substitute for an executive branch that also buys in to the importance of innovation. Here is the biggest reason: Uncertainty and delays undermine the ultimate impact federal dollars invested in innovation. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) shows that is fact.

Earlier this year, GAO issued a report showing how the whipsaw of a Trump administration proposal to defund the Advanced Projects Research Agency for Energy, Congress’s decision to reject that proposal, and the administration’s delay in spending those appropriated funds led to significant inefficiency—and hurt the mission. We should not create unnecessary uncertainty for our scientists, engineers, and entrepreneurs. And we should not dilute the impact of taxpayer dollars because of avoidable delays.

Third, we need to remember that strategic collaboration is a tide that lifts all boats. Mission Innovation was launched with 20 countries and has since grown to more. These countries are economic competitors yet the world continues to collaborate. Last week, the Nordics hosted two multilateral meetings on energy—the ninth Clean Energy Ministerial (CEM) and third Mission Innovation Ministerial. These countries know they are better able to accelerate clean energy innovation through strategic collaboration.

While the United States was present at CEM and moved the ball forward on collaborations focused on carbon capture, utilization, and sequestration—which will be critical to achieving the carbon removal, or negative emissions, necessary to meet our carbon targets—and on nuclear energy, our country should be leading in a more comprehensive and substantive way. One might even call it an “all-of-the-above approach to clean energy.”

The bottom line is this: We should not limit the impact of our investment by ceding leadership in these types of international fora.

Research investment in clean energy will continue to contribute to our economy, national security, and wellbeing. A strong track record, engagement from public and private sector leaders, and, ultimately, bipartisan leadership in Congress has kept U.S. research investment in this space growing. The United States remains well-positioned to lead on Mission Innovation. To do so, we need to keep increasing investment—and keep increasing impact.

This post was originally published on the Center on Global Energy Policy blog.

Ali A. Zaidi is a non-resident fellow at Columbia University’s Center for Global Energy Policy; adjunct professor and Precourt Energy Scholar at Stanford University; and former associate director for Natural Resources, Energy, and Science at the U.S. Office of Management and Budget. In the Obama administration, Zaidi was a member of the team that designed the international Mission Innovation initiative and developed the U.S. framework to implement the associated R&D commitments.

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