Breakthroughs Essential to Fully Meet Nation’s Energy Challenges

gyi0056645010.hmedium Breakthroughs Essential to Fully Meet Nation’s Energy Challenges

Today, the U.S. Department of Energy announced $377 million in funding to establish 46 Energy Frontier Research Centers(EFRCs) pursuing potentially path-breaking basic and translationalresearch at the cutting-edge of clean energy innovation. Of thisfunding, $277 comes from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act(ARRA, otherwise known as the stimulus package) and $100 million comesfrom the DOE’s FY2009 budget. The funding will be sustained over thenext five years, with the DOE committing $100 million of its budget tothe research centers each year.

“Meeting the challenge to reduceour dependence on imported oil and curtail greenhouse gas emissionswill require significant scientific advances,” said Energy SecretarySteven Chu as he announced the new funding for EFRCs. “These centerswill mobilize the enormous talents and skills of our nation’sscientific workforce in pursuit of the breakthroughs that are essentialto expand the use of clean and renewable energy.”

The majorityof EFRCs are based in universities, with several harnessing the skillsand resources of the national laboratories, and just three awarded tonon-profit organizations and private corporations. Over the course ofthe program, these centers will employ over 1,800 people in researchinto four primary realms: Renewable and Carbon-Neutral Energy (including Solar Energy Utilization, Advanced Nuclear Energy Systems, Biofuels, and Geological Sequestration of CO2); Energy Efficiency (Clean and Efficient Combustion, Solid State Lighting, Superconductivity); Energy Storage (Hydrogen Research, Electrical Energy Storage); and Crosscutting Science (Catalysis, Materials under Extreme Environments).

A few examples of the research this funding will support include (full list here):

  • ColumbiaUniversity will focus on achieving higher sunlight-to-electricityconversion efficiencies from thin film solar photovoltaics.
  • CornellUniversity will focus on advanced battery chemistry and design thatcould enable affordable electric vehicles or mass on-grid energy storage
  • University of Texas-Austin will focus on advanced materials used in energy storage technologies.
  • Purdue University will focus on improved conversion of biomass to energy, fuels or chemicals.

Tobe sure, this funding should be celebrated – this research is crucialto developing the scientific foundation for breakthrough energytechnologies. It is a great (small) step. But the time has long sincecome to fully invest in our nation’s innovators and the cutting-edgeresearch essential to both improve today’s clean energy technologiesand to achieve breakthroughs that pave the way for the transformationalenergy technologies of tomorrow. Both forms of support are necessary tomake clean energy cheap.

Unfortunately, total U.S. spending onenergy research, development and deployment is in a sorry state. Inoted yesterday that the entire budget for ARPA-e (a newly fundedgovernment agency centered on high-risk, high-reward energy research)is less than talk show personality Rush Limbaugh’s latest contract. In total the U.S. government spent about $4 billion on energy research in 2007 (the same as the Navy’s phone billthat year by the way). That figure is thankfully up somewhat, with thisnew infusion of innovation investment in the stimulus and PresidentObama’s FY 2009 budget, but still just barely tops $5 billion. Incontrast, the United States spends over $30 billion annually to pursuecures to deadly diseases and improve human health through the NationalInstitutes of Health – evidence of the scale of a true national innovation priority.

Whilespending on energy research is expected to be higher this year than inrecent years (in large part due to the stimulus), we need a sustainedcommitment to clean energy that reflects the scale of our mountingenergy and climate challenge. The Waxman-Markey climate and energybill, currently promoted as the next driver of a clean energy economy,would invest only about $1.2 billionannually in energy research and development and roughly $10 billion inthe clean energy sector as a whole – less than 0.1 percent of U.S. GDP.In contrast, South Korea is investing a full 2 percent of its GDP inclean technologies, and China is planning to invest $44-66 billionannually to build their own modern clean energy industries andinfrastructure. We must inspire and empower our nation’s youth tobecome the next generation of energy innovatorsby fully funding President Obama’s RE-ENERGYSE initiative, and we mustbuild and expand upon this new funding for Energy Frontier ResearchCenters as just the first launching pad into the next frontiers ofclean energy deployment.

Cross-posted at The Breakthrough Institute

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