On Wednesday, several of the country’s leading energy experts gathered at the National Press Club in Washington, DC for the Energy Innovation 2010 conference. Their purpose? Reframing the national energy discussion in the aftermath of cap and trade and beginning the transition to a new federal clean energy strategy.
Hosted by the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation and Breakthrough Institute, and co-sponsored by a large coalition of think tanks across the political spectrum, the conference drew hundreds of attendants for a day of presentations and panels. Speakers and moderators included ARPA-E Director Dr. Arun Majumdar, DOE Under Secretary of Energy Cathy Zoi, Nobel Laureate Burton Richter, Andrew Revkin of New York Times, Bryan Walsh of Time Magazine, and many others.
For forty years, the federal government has failed to implement a strategy for cutting U.S. dependence on fossil fuels. And for over a decade, cap and trade has defined the federal policy vision of the U.S. clean energy and environmental community, only to collapse in summer 2010.
This context framed the central question at Energy Innovation 2010: where does the United States go from here, and what kind of approach can finally forge the consensus we need to build a clean energy economy? And what key lessons can the U.S. take from the role of federal policy in driving previous technological and economic transformations?
Throughout a wide range of discussions — including scientists, business leaders, think tankers, policymakers, and administration officials — the overarching consensus was clear: the U.S. must leverage its innovative capacity to drive down the price of clean energy technologies as rapidly as possible through targeted investment across the innovation pipeline, including institutional reforms to the national innovation system. Just as importantly, this alternative approach has the potential to garner unique and powerful bipartisan support.
This position builds on a growing national consensus, recently represented by U.S. business titans in the American Energy Innovation Council, as well as President Obama’s chief science and technology advisors. The conference also marked the release of the Energy Innovation Tracker website, and a new Breakthrough Institute report, “Where Good Technologies Come From.”
“The promise of a clean, secure, and prosperous energy future continues to disappoint because it has been, for four decades, premised on the notion that the technologies necessary to deliver that future are close at hand. They are not,” wrote the hosts Dr. Rob Atkinson, Ted Nordhaus, and Michael Shellenberger. ”It’s time to change that. It’s time to drive energy innovation… [federal] commitment needs to be stronger, and more strategically built around particular technology pathways and policies focused on innovation.”
This perspective was echoed by nearly all the participating energy scientists and policy experts. According to Dr. Nate Lewis, a leading energy scientist and director of Caltech’s Energy Innovation Hub, the U.S. cannot unleash an energy technology revolution with the current federal R&D budget. William Bonvillian, director of MIT’s DC office and author of Structuring an Energy Technology Revolution, warned that without a serious energy technology strategy, the U.S. could miss the next great wave of global innovation. Armond Cohen, Executive Director of the Clean Air Task Force, said the U.S. has seemingly forgotten the critical federal role in technology innovation and needs a new political movement on this front. Indeed, as Jesse Jenkins and Dr. Daniel Sarewitz presented, U.S. technological leadership has historically depended in large part on public investment.
A similar consensus emerged that the next federal clean energy agenda must break out of the highly polarized climate change debate in order to succeed. Nobel Laureate Burton Richter argued that advocates have excluded potential allies by focusing so exclusively on climate change as the primary reason for action. He stressed the importance of the recent “Post-Partisan Power” report from scholars at Brookings Institution, American Enterprise Institute, and Breakthrough Institute for its ideas and bipartisan potential. Dr. Roger Pielke, Jr. and Steven Hayward, a Senior Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, said that an energy innovation strategy could be justified even without belief in climate change, given the other public benefits.
Energy Innovation 2010 essentially represented the first major national conference focused on discussing a serious federal alternative to cap and trade. As some panelists emphasized, this is the beginning of a long-term discussion and consensus-building effort that will take years to accomplish.
The near-term political challenges for any serious federal energy agenda are considerable. This reality was especially clear in the final panel, “A New Centrism: Making Clean Innovation Policy Bipartisan,” including leading Senate energy staffers and think tankers from the center, left, and right. Despite the benefits of federal energy innovation investment, the current appetite for new spending of any kind makes it highly unlikely in the upcoming Congress.
The measure of success in the near-term, then, should not be whether this type of approach can immediately advance, although advancing specific incremental pieces is an urgent cause. After all, it took 10 to 15 years for cap and trade to get a real hearing in Congress. Rather, the measure of near-term success should be whether this approach can continue building consensus among advocates, thought leaders, and committed policymakers, with an eye toward medium and long-term implementation.
Overall, the conference was a display of new optimism and direction for the U.S. clean energy movement. Transforming the U.S. and global energy industry is a daunting task, and the road to establishing a new national energy consensus will be long. In many ways this is only the beginning of a different energy and climate dialogue, and much work is left to be done. But a new framework has finally emerged into the center of discussion after years of effort, and with enough committed thinking and leadership, the United States might just achieve the energy revolution we need.