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.
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: