Energy Innovation as Key to Economic and Environmental Success

 This post contributed by Nadine Lymn, ESA Director of Public Affairs

I caught the front end of today’s Energy Innovation 2010 Conference in Washington, DC featuring a range of individuals involved or thinking about national and global energy.  Speakers included the President and CEO of Securing  America’s Future Energy, the Executive Director of the Department of Defense’s Strategic Environmental R&D Program (SERDP), a co-author of the report “Rising Tigers, Sleeping Giant,” and many others.

Co-sponsored by the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF) and the Breakthrough Institute, the purpose of the conference was to explore how energy innovation can help “address some of the most urgent imperatives of our time—renewing the economy, improving energy security and public health, and overcoming key environmental challenges.” 

In his opening remarks, the President of ITIF, Rob Atkinson, stated that innovation will be the key to moving the U.S. and the rest of the world to clean energy—not because it is forced on countries, but because (through innovation) it will be cheaper, cleaner, and better than fossil fuels.

A key theme was that it makes both economic and environmental sense to move forward on creative energy solutions and that it necessarily requires public investment through the federal government to fuel the experimental and risky research that private industry tends to avoid. 

Some speakers, notably Roger Pielke with the University of Colorado, Boulder, argued that instead of focusing on only one reason to shift from fossil fuels to other energy sources—for example, the need to address climate change—we should include the multitude of viable reasons for the United States to embrace this shift. These include staying globally competitive (it was pointed out by another panelist that Japan and other countries are outspending the U.S. in R&D as a percentage of Gross Domestic Product), containing costs, securing an energy supply, ending damaging subsidies, as well as curbing greenhouse gases.  Pielke pointed out that such an approach offers a much broader justification for action than does debating climate science.

 In the U.S., said Pielke, we are stuck arguing about the science instead of getting into the “nitty gritty” of tackling the problem.  Multiple reasons to do something offer more potential to create a broad base of support that can be sustained over a period of many decades, he said.

ITIF’s Atkinson raised a point that seems all too vivid in the wake of the recent BP oil disaster: it’s the choice that matters; if you don’t have another choice, the default is the status quo.  That is, until cheap and scalable alternative energy sources emerge, “you can’t price uncertainty” and that prevents people from making decisions.  He also pointed out that in a capitalist playing field, one should expect tremendous resistance from the “incumbents” (such as the fossil fuel industry) who are not going to just “roll over” to make the path to cleaner energy easy. 

Jeffrey Marqusee, Executive Director of DOD’s SERDP, argued that sometimes the raw self interest of a mammoth agency such as DOD can lead to positive results.  It’s in the interest of DOD, said Marquesee, to find ways to reduce its $4 billion annual energy expenditure and it sees renewable energy as one way to do so.  Concerns about energy security are another driver; the ability for the military to operate even during grid outages.  Because of DOD’s enormous scale and variety of installations—from barracks, to single family homes, to hospitals, and light industrial buildings—DOD is a “microcosm of the energy use of the rest of the country,” said Marqusee.  DOD wants to partner with the Department of Energy and the private sector to take on risky innovation, test it, and if it’s successful, deploy it at numerous installations, he said. 

In light of the continuing global inability to establish climate policy that leads to results, a prevailing sentiment from some panelists seemed to be to tackle the problem from a different direction: spur innovation in cleaner energy, make it cheaper than fossil fuels, and thereby address a myriad of problems all at once, with reduced greenhouse gas emissions as a bonus.

Author: Nadine Lymn

ESA Director of Public Affairs

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