Agreeing To Agree on Energy Research and Development

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

“Post-Partisan Power”, written jointly by scholars at Brookings, AEI, and the BreakthroughInstitute 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 theperception that the paper promoted its recommendations as a viablealternative to a price on carbon.  The very title of the paper claimsits 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 theBreakthrough Institute figures prominently).  Plenty of commentatorshave 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 betweenparties.  There is a basic consensus amongst academics and policyanalysts that addressing our climate and energy challenges will requireboth 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-pricingwill be necessary, it will not be sufficient. Economists and otherpolicy analysts have noted that policies intended to fosterclimate-friendly technology research and development (R&D) willalso 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” arevaluable contributions to the energy debate.  The authors clearlyunderstand 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 andnecessity of energy innovation.  If “Post-Partisan Power” helps furtherthat recognition, it will have been a success.



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