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Monday, February 23, 2009

Time's Bryan Walsh Takes Us Beyond Carbon Pricing

Cross-posted from the Breakthrough Institute

In his latest piece, Time magazine's energy and climate writer Bryan Walsh takes readers beyond carbon pricing, to look at the more active government engagement in energy innovation necessary in the race against climate change.

"[A] growing chorus of experts is beginning to doubt whether cap-and-trade alone will reduce CO2 enough to curb runaway climate change," Walsh writes, before turning to the need for new energy innovation on an unprecedented scale.

As Walsh writes, "If the U.S. is to invent its way out of climate change, which some suggest is our only hope, it will need to spend [a] lot more and a lot more wisely on basic energy research."

Selected excerpts after the jump...

The question is, how do we attempt to correct a problem [climate change] we cannot yet fathom? The conventional wisdom is that the U.S. and other countries need to put a gradually declining mandatory cap on carbon emissions, which will effectively put a price on greenhouse gas pollution, accelerate the adoption of clean energy technologies and roll back warming. ...

But a growing chorus of experts is beginning to doubt whether cap-and-trade alone will reduce CO2 enough to curb runaway climate change. They argue instead that the solution to an unforeseen problem is unforeseen answers: breakthrough technological discoveries and energy solutions we haven't yet imagined. That might include economical clean coal plants, vastly improved energy storage, even something as far out as fusion. Within the green-energy industry, however, the consensus is that the U.S., the country that built the atom bomb and landed on the moon, is falling far short of the research and development investment needed to seed those discoveries. "We need to pull all the levels at our disposal to raise demand for clean energy," says John Denniston, a partner focusing on green tech with the venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins. "The federal government needs to make this a top priority for the country -- but at the moment, that's not happening." ...

Denniston says that in recent years, the federal government has allocated about $1 billion a year on energy research. That might sound like a lot, but the energy industry as a whole is worth some $1.6 trillion a year, and the federal government today spends less than a fifth of what it did on energy R & D in the 1970s and 1980s. Compare that with annual federal R & D spending in the health-care industry, which is some 30 times higher, says Denniston, even though the two industries are similar in annual revenue. "Show me an industry that is investing less than 1/10th of 1% of its annual revenue on research and development, and I'll show you an industry that is not poised for the future," says Denniston.

If the U.S. is to invent its way out of climate change, which some suggest is our only hope, it will need to spend lot more and a lot more wisely on basic energy research. ...

Scientists will also have to spend smarter, focusing research on rapidly funneling workable energy solutions. Take energy storage -- one of the chief limitations of many renewables is that they are intermittent, producing energy only when the sun shines or the wind blows. Carbon pricing and renewable energy standards can help speed the adoption of wind and solar in the marketplace by helping alternatives compete with fossil fuels. But only a better form of energy storage, which could be anything from superior batteries to artificial photosynthesis, can make renewables truly capable of replacing fossil fuels, and that's still a question of research. Just as when we raced to the moon, we don't have the luxury today of lumbering through the usual slow process of scientific discovery. "We don't have time to just publish articles in journals," says Mark Muro, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. "We need an open competition for the most compelling ideas."

In fact, a new Brookings report [see Breakthrough's post here] suggests creating dozens of energy discovery-innovation institutes, which would serve as hubs for a national effort to remake energy, from the way it is produced, stored and distributed to the way people buy and use it. Each institute would receive up to $200 million in federal funding each year -- part of an estimated total federal R & D goal of $20 to $30 billion a year -- and would aim to help rapidly transfer new ideas from the lab to the marketplace. "We need to push closer to commercialization, fast," says Muro.

The Brookings idea is one among many, but what's clear is that while the country is increasingly coming to agree on the scale of the threat posed by climate change, we have yet to pose solutions that can match that scale. Taking federal energy R & D off life support is one way, but we'll need others. Properly funding energy R & D won't be easy, especially in an economic downturn when competition for federal dollars is fierce. But selling the public on a massive energy research project might be easier than passing a national carbon cap-and-trade program, at least initially -- Americans are familiar with ambitious (and successful) national projects, including the Apollo program and, in many ways, World War II. "We need to do all of the above and more," says Muro. And as science is showing us, we need to do it faster than we thought.

Click here to read the full story in Time.

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