Clean Energy: U.S. Still Lags in Research and Development

Clean Energy: U.S. Still Lags in Research and Development

When Apollo astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the moon 40 years ago, it was a triumph of American scientific skill. It was also the result of the government’s willingness to spend over $125 billion, in today’s dollars, to take the country to the moon.

The need to remake our energy economy and to replace fossil fuels with renewables like wind and solar is often referred to as the new Apollo Project, a challenge to our scientists — and to the federal checkbook — that will be even greater than the moon race. We’re moving ahead on installing new clean energy — the U.S. was the fastest growing wind power market in the world in 2008 — and Congress, with the support of President Barack Obama, is on the road to establishing caps on carbon dioxide.

But according to many energy experts — including Steven Chu, Obama’s Nobel Prize-winning Energy Secretary — the science isn’t there yet. Significant basic research and development needs to happen before renewables can truly displace fossil fuels. And unlike the first Apollo Project, the U.S. seems far from ready to spend the money needed to create long-term solutions to global warming — which risks the country falling behind in this new scientific race, toward a clean energy economy. “If we are serious about delivering the real technological change needed to really reduce emissions, we need to scale up research in a massive way,” says Mark Muro, a fellow at the Brookings Institute. “We need a paradigm shift, and we’re falling behind.”

Much of that research would be done under the auspices of the Department of Energy, but Secretary Chu has seen his requests for more funding rebuffed by Congress. Chu wants to spend $280 million to create eight new research and development labs, staffed by scientists from a variety of areas, to work on clean energy solutions. Called “energy innovation hubs,” they would be patterned after AT&T Bell Laboratories, the famed research centers where Chu did much of the work that won him a Nobel Prize in physics. Each hub would have a different energy focus, but scientists from different disciplines could meet and interact, and hopefully speed scientific progress. For the Department of Energy, which generally focuses on nuclear weapons, the hubs would represent a chance to start anew with energy research. “This allows you to begin a process of major experimentation with new paradigms,” says Muro.

But although Congress is willing to fund the Energy Department at roughly the levels Obama is demanding, the House would give Chu only $35 million for his innovation hubs — enough for one center. Meanwhile, Congress is pushing the Energy Department to spend over $200 million on hydrogen-based clean fuel technologies — an idea that was popular with President George W. Bush, but that many energy experts deride as a permanent pipe dream. Another House bill would have the Energy Department spend $30 million a year for five years on natural-gas vehicles, even though the Obama Administration hasn’t sought the money and few experts believe natural gas is a smart fuel.

As Chu, a newcomer to the capital, fights for money in Congress, there’s a bigger battle brewing over the carbon cap and trade bill. Co-sponsored by Democratic lawmakers Henry Waxman and Edward Markey, the bill barely passed the House last month and will soon be taken up by the Senate. The legislative fight has mostly centered on how tight the carbon caps should be, but some of the revenue created by the cap — which would require some companies to pay for carbon credits — will be directed to energy research and development.

As cap and trade was revised in Congress, though, that number has dwindled — the current bill would channel perhaps around $10 billion a year to energy research in its early stages — but not solely for clean energy. By contrast, on the campaign trail Obama promised to spend $150 billion over 10 years just on clean energy research. On July 16, an assortment of 34 Nobel Prize winners wrote a letter to President Obama, calling for more support for energy research and development in the climate bill. “We need a much larger investment than what we’re getting,” says Jesse Jenkins, director of energy and climate policy at the Breakthrough Institute.

In the government’s defense, the stimulus bill has directed further billions toward clean energy, and the new levels of funding will be higher than anything the industry has ever known. But other nations, especially in Asia, are still beating us. China is reportedly investing up to $660 billion over the next decade in clean energy and research. South Korea is planning to invest close to 2% of its GDP each year, or about $85 billion over five years, in clean tech. And Japan is aiming for a 20-fold expansion in installed solar by 2020. Meanwhile executives in American clean energy companies, who visited Capitol Hill on July 28 to lobby for a stronger national renewable energy standard, worry that we could be falling behind. “This bill does nothing to drive the installation of new renewable energy for the next several years,” says Craig Mataczynski, the president of Colorado-based clean energy company Res Americas. “If we don’t do something to drive this industry here, we could end up in second place to a country like China.”

Of course, the tiny renewable power industry has little weight in Washington. The major coal-powered utility American Electric Power spent $4.6 million to lobby Congress in the first six months of the year, $1.3 million more than it did over the same period last year. By contrast, “I don’t think you can see the renewable energy lobby compete on a dollar-by-dollar basis with the fossil fuel and coal lobby,” says Mataczynski.

The question now is whether Obama will throw his weight into the battle. “Which country will create these jobs and these industries” he said in a speech on June 25. “I want that answer to be the United States of America.” It can be — but only if we’re willing to shoot for the moon.