The 2016 presidential campaign was marked by strong disagreement over energy policy. Now that the dust has settled, there may be opportunities to find common ground. Innovation to make energy production and use cleaner and support the U.S. economy is one objective that unites the two parties and both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue. ITIF hosted a discussion about the future of federal clean energy innovation policy and released a new report on energy innovation priorities.
ITIF Senior Fellow David Hart opened the discussion by reprising his October 2016 ITIF paper on “Rescuing the Low-Carbon Energy Transition from Magical Thinking.” He described four forms of magical thinking that inhibit the development of a robust clean energy innovation agenda: climate denial, science push, premature triumphalism about energy efficiency and renewable energy, and the carbon tax obsession.
Dr. Varun Sivaram then presented the ITIF report that he co-authored with Hart and that was released at the event. The report advances three key steps for addressing clean-energy innovation in the coming administration: focus our priorities, reform our institutions, and expand our investment along the innovation chain.
The report lays out six “technology missions” that might serve to focus federal energy-innovation resources on important national needs where there are significant technological opportunities: nuclear power; solar energy; energy storage; carbon capture, utilization, and storage; advanced cooling and thermal energy storage; and smart energy management and connected vehicles. Dr. Sivaram stated that continuing innovation and advancement under the Trump administration in each of these spaces is vital to ensuring economic success and national security, while also mitigating climate change.
Panelists agreed that the reform agenda should include institutional change, so that existing funding goes further. National labs are one focus for such reforms. The labs should be better connected to focused technology missions that reflect national priorities, work toward better collaboration with the private sector, and do more to help commercialize clean-energy technology. In addition, the workforce within the labs and federal agencies more generally must have incentives to work with one another and with industry to innovate effectively.
The report argues that the federal government has a significant role to play in helping to create both demand-pull and supply-push for the development and implementation of these new technologies. Dr. Jeffrey Marqusee, chief scientist at Noblis, pointed out the importance of political support in the energy innovation field. Dr. Todd Allen, senior fellow at Third Way, emphasized the need for public-private partnerships, specifically in the development of advanced nuclear power. As he explained, investments in nuclear energy start-ups have increased significantly in recent years, so government should work toward solutions that are collaborative with the industry.
Dr. Marqusee presented the audience with an important warning: when making suggestions to improve energy innovation policy, it is important to avoid generalizations. There are multiple institutions, specialties, and frameworks within energy, and the innovation process differs greatly across them. Marqusee encouraged policy-makers to learn from the innovation environment and processes of the Department of Defense (DOD).
Dr. Dorothy Robyn, former deputy undersecretary for the Department of Defense explained that because DOD is the one place where supply and demand fall under one roof, it is a key engine for innovation. The easily accessible and vast market for defense technology allows ideas to thrive. As a major consumer of energy, and a clear political priority, DOD will play a key role in keeping the next administration focused on advancing clean-energy technology.
Dr. Sivaram closed the discussion by point to the importance of effective communication about clean-energy innovation. The challenges that clean energy innovation addresses will remain, so policymakers, researchers, and advocates alike must reshape the discussion to reflect a potential for economic growth and national strength through sustainable choices.