Climate change is a global problem that requires global solutions. Unilateral domestic cuts cannot tackle it alone; other nations will continue to choose high-emitting energy options when they are cheaper and more reliable than a clean alternative. A keytool is American innovation. The U.S. has the capability to develop market competitive,clean energy options to other nations. The model is simple: invest in basic and applied research and development to unlock new technologies; enable domestic adoption and deployment; and export cutting-edge solutions worldwide to reduce global emissions. By aggressively pursuing this innovation agenda, the U.S. can advance its position as a global innovator, exporter, and environmental leader for the next generation of energy technologies.

The U.S. has already demonstrated that innovation is an effective weapon for reducing emissions. Federal natural gas research programs that occurred almost half a century ago have driven a 24.7% reduction in power sector carbon dioxide emissions in the U.S. from 2005 to 2016.1 The U.S.-pioneered shale gas revolution represents the blueprint to the further clean energy revolutions we will need to meet global emission reduction objectives.

Department of Energy Apparatus

Even though every person needs affordable, reliable electricity, the high cost of developing new energy generation sources is a difficult investment for traditional energy companies — the energy sector spends only a fraction of money on R&D as a result (see below). The road from concept to commercialization can include high capital costs and long waits for an uncertain return on investments. This is where the Department of Energy steps in: investing wisely in ways the private sector needs to catapult U.S. technologies to the global stage.

Source: BPC2

How exactly do these breakthroughs happen? One tool is the Department of Energy itself. The Department funds basic and applied research at 17 National Laboratories. Scientists at these laboratories pioneered nuclear energy and medicine, the battery technology in electric cars, and the MRI machine, among many other technologies.3 The Manhattan project, conducted at what are today National Laboratories, led to the harnessing of nuclear fission and the first electricity producing nuclear reactor in 1951.4 Engineering companies like Westinghouse and General Electric ran with this technology; as of 2018, nuclear reactors provide 19% of electricity generation in the U.S. and the largest source of emissions-free electricity on the U.S. grid.5

The Department also funds grants to research institutions across the U.S., including companies in the early stages of developing innovative technology. For example, the DAYS Program under the Advanced Research Project Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) gives grants to companies, universities, and laboratories across the U.S. to improve long duration energy storage systems. Some of these projects could provide storage for up to 25 times longer than the average battery today, lengths that could revolutionize the grid’s flexibility, reliability, and security.6

For developers who are closer to commercialization, the Department of Energy offers both funding or technical assistance. Tools include public-private partnerships and laboratory “vouchers” that allow private companies access to lab facilities at no cost.

Vouchers can focus the Department’s wide resources on targeted breakthrough technology. An advanced nuclear voucher program7 provides developers of advanced nuclear reactors and related technologies access to ten national laboratories. This access allows developers to run complicated tests to hone their designs to reduce the technical and financial burden of achieving commercialization. A company making microreactors for remote Alaskan villages and modular reactors that can be added like Legos have been able to ready their designs for near-term licensing and deployment. More than ten additional developers have modelled and tested key elements of their breakthrough designs for deployment in the next decade.

Public-private partnerships on groundbreaking projects have already led to massive emissions reductions. In 2019, the Department of Energy partnered with Mitsubishi to deploy the first commercial-scale carbon capture plant which has captured as much carbon dioxide as over 400,000 trees. Other companies are following suit by developing carbon capture projects at commercial scale. The leap from innovative idea to innovative project can be vast; public private partnerships can bridge that gap for others to follow.


Innovation for the future

Looking to the future, the world will need even more clean energy tools in its toolbelt to reach emissions targets. Fortunately, we don’t have to reinvent the wheel. Even “old” technologies are seeing new breakthroughs today that will enable the deployment of gigawatts of clean energy in the coming decades.

Innovation in existing energy systems includes:

Enhanced geothermal systems: This technology has the ability to add 60GWe of additional renewable baseload electricity – that’s enough to power 1/12th of the country — by tapping into resources once thought impossible. Today, the ARPA-E supports private companies like FERVO as they develop these cutting-edge systems. For more information on FERVO, check out this video.

Long-duration energy storage: New ways of thinking about energy storage technologies could contribute to almost exponential growth — utility-scale storage is expected to triple by the end of 2023.8 California-based company Quidnet combines drilling and pumped hydro storage technologies to make artificial pumped storage in old oil and gas infrastructure. Quidnet has received funding from the ARPA-E DAYS Program for their geomechanical pumped storage to make this technology deployable and instantly dispatchable at grid scale.9 For more information on Quidnet and long-duration energy storage, check out this video.

Nuclear: A new type of fuel, TRISO fuel, was developed at national laboratories. It cannot melt and retains its fission particles, allowing TRISO-fueled reactors to be even safer and more resilient.10 Today, the Department of Energy is partnering with nuclear engineering company X-Energy to design a TRISO fuel fabrication facility for the many advanced reactor vendors who will need it in the coming decades.11

Carbon capture: One company, NetPower, is developing a fossil power plant with zero-emissions and at a cost-competitive price. It bucks conventional wisdom by using carbon dioxide instead of water to increase efficiency and simplify the carbon capture process. Any excess carbon dioxide that is not used in the process can be easily siphoned out of the process, unlike most power plants today. For more information check out this video.

Marine Hydrokinetics: The Water Power Technologies Office at the Department of Energy is developing technologies to harness wave, tidal, and river and ocean currents, which could unlock 500-750 TWh of electricity each year.12 The PacWAVE testing center off the coast of Newport, Oregon is piloting this wave energy to electricity conversion. The center is connected to the grid under a twenty-five year license, providing ample opportunities for innovative technology development.

In addition, completely new technologies could assist deep decarbonization efforts in the future.

Carbon capture technologies that can pull emissions straight from the air (“direct air capture”) could contribute to not just net zero, but negative emissions. Some startups could displace the equivalent of pulling over 200,000 cars off the road.13 Building at scale will help decrease costs, as will returning to the basics: research into basic materials can lower costs and accelerate global deployment.

Fusion reactors are also on the horizon. The Department has researched fusion since the 1970s and in 2019 opened its massive infrastructure to fusion startups through a lab voucher system called INFUSE. Using laboratory equipment helps startups hone the most efficient, cost-effective design for future deployment. Such support has and will continue to make the U.S. a global leader in energy production.

America’s best tool

The U.S. can’t outspend climate change, but it can innovate, research, and commercialize technologies to address this challenge. Through targeted research and development, public private partnerships, and laboratory access, new ideas become real solutions. Leveraging the Department of Energy unlocks market potential and leads to the reduction of millions of tons of emissions. We’ve done it already and can do it again.


Policy Should Push Clean Technology up the Global “S-Curve”