The History of Clean Energy Research

The focus on innovation in Obama’s State of the Union marks a new highpoint for clean energy R&D advocacy. In the coming months,politicians and policy makers will likely align around proposals toencourage everything from basic research to putting solar panels on ourroofs and hybrids in our garages. It is easy, in such an environment, to forget the barren stretch of time between the oil crisis inducedrenewable energy craze of the 1970s and the present day. During thistime, funding dried up, programs were cut, and renewable energy research and deployment was forced to go abroad or wither in an apathetic United States.

Politicians, policymakers and enthusiasts talk about ways that new programs will help America race past its competitors as it did in the space race, but there is not enough attention on how the oldprograms died and what was the full impact of their disappearance. There are important lessons to learn, the biggest of which is thatinconsistency in policy can be crippling to research. While proponentsof clean and renewable technologies should welcome the renewed interestand funding, it is important that they learn from the past and focus oncreating a support system that is not only robust but also provides some assurances of long-term commitments.

Most of the renewableenergy technologies today owe their existence to research done in theUnited States over the last century. Many of the key technologies inmodern windmills, including the variable speed drives and specialcomposites used to make the blades, were developed here. Domesticresearch in semiconductors and other materials in American universitiesand national and private labs led to the birth of photovoltaics. Thisresearch was driven by a select group of dedicated programs. Prof.William Paul’s group at Harvard, Prof. Hellmut Fritzsche’s group at U.Chicago, and Prof. Richard Bube’s group at Stanford were all examples of such labs that contributed important discoveries to photovoltaictechnology. Given the resources to target renewable energy research,they were able to attract the brightest minds and give these scientiststhe experience in the field required to make them true experts.

But scientists need paychecks, and when programs in photovoltaics losttheir funding, the individuals in these labs were forced torespecialize. Not only did their work get put on hold, but they were not able to attract and train the next generation of scientists to continue their legacy. As Paul, Fritzsche and Bube near retirement, some oftheir combined expertise in the field of photovoltaics will undoubtedlybe lost.

Research teams of this caliber take time to create.Throwing a billion dollars at renewable energy research tomorrow willgenerate a mob of scientists willing to delve into the topic, but itmight take years before they gain the level of collective expertiseestablished in some of these labs. Continuity is essential to maintain a core of scientists that are true experts in the field and can lead newresearch initiatives. Even low but consistent levels of funding allowsuch cores to survive. An excess of funding might be wasteful if it goes to groups not capable of such high level work.

As America debates renewable energy policy, it should remember that research cannot thrive in a fickle funding environment driven by the mood swings of congress.In the last decade, America began to understand the massive researchinitiative it will require to maintain international competitiveness,reduce our dependence on fossil fuels and restabilize the environment.The original America COMPETES Act, passed under President Bush in 2007,was a strong first step toward creating a well-trained group of American scientists to lead this initiative. However, momentum has only justbegun to build and if funding is cut then much of the progress made over the last few years will be wasted.

Thankfully, the America COMPETES Re-authorization act was passed in the final days of the lame duck congress and finally signed into law. However, the appropriations committees of the next Congress willdetermine the actual amount of funding to be allotted for researchinitiatives. COMPETES was already reduced from $84 to $43 billion in order to pass the Senate, and the finalamount appropriated could be much lower. This is particularly true with a new wave of Senators and Congressmen coming to Washington to cutspending. If America wants to see the volume and caliber of researchthat brought us these technologies in the first place (and propelled uspast the Soviet Union during the Sputnik crisis), we must allow theseresearch groups to form and collective expertise in these fields tobuild. While our support for research yields exciting discoveries today, we are also preparing the ground for the greater discoveries oftomorrow. We must take care not to falter in our commitment to thesegroups as we did before or we will forego the greatest rewards of theirwork.

By Tucker Willsie | Originally published at Americans for Energy Leadership

Tucker Willsie is a Contributor in AEL’s New Energy Leaders Project and his work will be regularly featured on the website. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of AEL.

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