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Energy Technology: Cultivating Clean Tech

New Models for Energy RD&D: A new ‘Clean Energy Institute’ could lead the industry’s war on climate change.

Fortnightly Magazine - May 2008

change, particularly if developing nations like China and India are to be coaxed into joining the effort. Such global leadership will require aggressive innovation and deployment of new technologies.

As a benefit, the clean energy RD&D effort has the potential to facilitate the largest U.S. jobs bill in recent history, and could be part of an economic stimulus package to spur a sluggish national economy. U.S. utilities really don’t want to rely on Japan to manufacture their reactor pressure vessels, and to source their coal gasification plants from China. But if the country doesn’t act quickly, and get domestic clean-energy technology on the fast track, it will be repeating the mistakes of the U.S. auto industry, helping non-U.S. manufacturers grow and achieve record profits, while U.S. industries languish and American workers join the unemployment lines.

As clean energy increasingly becomes a national priority—as a recent survey suggests it is —the next president likely will appoint a czar of some type, with recognized credentials, to head the effort (see Table 2) .

Many options present themselves. Perhaps the right person for the job is someone like Governor Bill Richardson, who has knowledge of energy R&D from his experience as energy secretary under the Clinton administration, and the political skills of both a U.N. ambassador and governor. Or the most effective leader might be someone drawn from the business of energy technology, such as former GE CEO Jack Welch, who would bring strong credibility in managing private-sector industrial development.

In any case, the discussion has already begun, and political and industry leaders are paying close attention.

Giant Leap for Mankind

The good news is that there is near unanimous agreement that new, more reliable funding at higher levels for clean energy RD&D will be needed to achieve the ambitious goals to reduce GHG emissions set by the IPCC and the Lieberman-Warner legislation, which Majority Leader Harry Reid recently said would be brought to the Senate floor this summer.

Precedents suggest several potential paths forward. What’s needed now is a charismatic champion who can pull together a broad-based coalition to support the effort. Given the potential consequences of failure, the nation can’t afford delays and mistakes in the critical next steps.

Once the regulatory driver is in place, and a new, consistently-funded management entity has been established, then a dramatically expanded clean-energy RD&D program can move forward. This program inevitably will be based on the proposals outlined in existing studies, plans and visions, as well as past RD&D efforts.

The challenge of clean-energy technology can be compared to such historic efforts as the moon landing, the Marshall Plan and the Panama Canal construction project. The technical challenges are similarly complex, and the resource requirements will be similarly demanding. The stakes, however, are greater, with implications for the U.S. economy and indeed, the entire world. As such, the goal of developing and deploying the next generation of energy technology calls for a dedicated national commitment. Whatever structure emerges to support this commitment, its success will depend on visionary leadership, public-private collaboration and solid financial support.