October 25th, 2010

Agreeing To Agree on Energy Research and Development


Virtually everyone who studies climate and energy issues agrees that federal energy R&D is woefully underfunded.  So why did a recent white paper recommending an increased emphasis on energy innovation and R&D, by scholars at three think tanks representing a range of ideologies, provoke significant criticism from a number of clean energy advocates?

“Post-Partisan Power”, written jointly by scholars at Brookings, AEI, and the Breakthrough Institute was criticized by a range of analysts, including CAP’s Joe Romm, Grist’s David Roberts, CFR’s Michael Levi and Harvard’s Rob Stavins (in addition to a plenty of favorable reactions.)

Much of the criticism centered less around its substance than on the perception that the paper promoted its recommendations as a viable alternative to a price on carbon.  The very title of the paper claims its approach can “deliver clean, cheap energy, economic productivity and national prosperity”, however I invite you to decide for yourself whether it frames itself as a comprehensive alternative.

This recent back-and-forth takes place in the context of an ongoing debate over the relative merits of R&D and technological innovation vs. carbon pricing and deployment of existing technologies (in which the Breakthrough Institute figures prominently).  Plenty of commentators have weighed in (including Bill Gates), and there are lots of interesting sub-issues to consider.  (My personal favorite is the value of deployment in the innovation process.)

Yet, this ongoing debate obscures substantial agreement between parties.  There is a basic consensus amongst academics and policy analysts that addressing our climate and energy challenges will require both increased R&D and a price on carbon.  Ours is both a technological challenge and a deployment challenge.

Harvard’s Rob Stavins, one of the foremost intellectuals in the climate policy field sums this up nicely:

It has long been recognized that although carbon-pricing will be necessary, it will not be sufficient. Economists and other policy analysts have noted that policies intended to foster climate-friendly technology research and development (R&D) will also be necessary, but likewise will not be sufficient on their own.

Carbon pricing and R&D are well understood to be complementary.  For one thing, a price on carbon would have substantial impact on the pace of technological innovation.

And yet the bulk of the recommendations in “Post-Partisan Power” are valuable contributions to the energy debate.  The authors clearly understand the importance of fostering innovation.  Brookings’ Mark Muro, in particular, is a leading advocate for a cluster-based perspective on energy innovation.

While it would be a shame for the release of this paper to dampen the chances of putting a price on carbon, so too would it be a shame to let broad agreement on the importance of energy innovation go to waste.

Policymakers need to recognize the challenge, opportunity and necessity of energy innovation.  If “Post-Partisan Power” helps further that recognition, it will have been a success.

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Walter Frick

About Walter Frick

Walter Frick works for the New England Clean Energy Council, managing the Council’s communications, web presence, and student outreach. Prior to joining the Council, Walter worked for the U.S. Green Building Council, creator of the LEED rating system, in D.C., where he focused on membership recruitment. Before that he worked in Richmond for the Virginia Senate Democratic Caucus. In addition to clean energy, Walter is interested in public policy, information and media, and how the web is changing our relationships with each. He is a graduate of Colgate University. Follow Walter on Twitter: @wfrick