Clean Energy Innovation: An Important Piece of the Climate Puzzle

Bipartisanship and congressional action aren’t words associated with climate change in recent years. But we may be taking steps away from that stalemate. There is growing momentum in Congress to support innovation in clean energy – which can play an important role in reducing climate pollution.

Members from both parties recognize that investing in innovation can accelerate the development of high-impact breakthrough clean energy technologies. That includes “negative emissions technologies” (NETs) that remove carbon from the air and that scientists say will be needed to meet climate goals. Innovation programs can also help drive down the costs of existing essential options like solar, wind, and electric vehicles.

The House Committee on Science, Space and Technology’s Subcommittee on Energy recently held a hearing to discuss two proposals that would direct the Department of Energy to develop and improve technologies that would reduce emissions from using fossil fuels. For example, DOE would be authorized to spend significant funding on technologies that capture carbon from power generation and industrial facilities as well as those that can cut emissions from difficult to decarbonize parts of the economy, like aviation, shipping, and cement, iron and steel production. Meanwhile, the House version of the Fiscal Year 2020 Energy and Water appropriations bill reflects the growing bipartisan support for innovation. It is a clear rejection of President Trump’s recommendations to cut or eliminate funding for renewable energy development, building and industrial energy efficiency programs, sustainable transportation technologies, and the popular and successful ARPA-E program that invests in high risk, high reward technologies.

These investments in innovation are an important step forward, but they are also not sufficient on their own to solve climate change – we must also act swiftly to put in place policies that set declining limits on greenhouse gas emissions and account for the real costs of that pollution. Together, these policies will lead to deeper pollution reductions, accomplished more quickly and affordably. That’s because a limit and a price on emissions will accelerate demand for clean energy, creating powerful economic incentives to adopt new technologies and providing a market for innovators who develop better ways to cut carbon. Investment in innovation can help make new technology options available, but we also need policies that create a level playing field such that clean technologies can thrive on the timeline and at the scale consistent with meeting our ambitious climate goals.

When it comes to innovation policies specifically, details matter, which is why we are outlining a set of key principles that together can form the foundation for well-designed innovation policy. Of course, not every individual bill can be expected to meet all of these principles, but a comprehensive national innovation strategy should strive to achieve them collectively.

  • Performance-based. The most promising technologies should receive the most funding – our focus should be on potential tons of pollution reduced per dollar invested.
  • Diversified. Investments should take a broad-based approach, encompassing a wide range of technologies that can reduce emissions in sectors throughout the economy – from NETS to emissions-reducing technologies like utility-scale energy storage to building and industrial efficiency to next-generation batteries, nuclear designs, electric vehicles, and grid equipment.
  • Risk tolerant. Government should not shy away from supporting riskier investments in potential breakthrough technologies given their possible impact on reducing pollution.
  • Ambitious. We need to stop adding climate pollution no later than 2050 – that is, producing no more than we can remove, or net-zero emissions. To dramatically transform our energy systems, we will need to at least double overall investments in innovation. That includes clean energy research and development – as well as programs focused on helping entrepreneurs and scientists bring technologies from the lab to the market.
  • Strategic. Policies should aim to leverage private capital as much as possible, and avoid duplicating or “crowding out” private investment.
  • Coordinated. Coordination across government agencies and programs, including within the Department of Energy, is critical to ensure investments are streamlined and their impacts maximized.
  • Adaptive. Programs should collect data to track performance in order to evaluate effectiveness per dollar and to improve with lessons learned over time.
  • Environmental integrity. Monitoring and tracking of emissions reductions is critical – including carbon that’s captured and stored underground or used in products or processes.  It’s also important to ensure full life-cycle accounting of emissions impacts – for example, taking into account land use changes as a result of biofuels production. And all policies should guard against negative environmental or health impacts and respect local and national environmental laws, like the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts.

We must be at least as bold as the climate crisis is urgent. Support for innovation alone won’t do the job – but by pairing a robust innovation push with strong policy frameworks that limit overall greenhouse gases, we can cut pollution at the pace and scale that science demands. We should seek out and embrace every step forward while fighting for the comprehensive action needed to protect our economy, our health, and our children from the impacts of climate change.

By Susanne Brooks

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