Originally Published at the Breakthrough Institute
The United States Mountain West has long been a hotbed of experimentation and innovation, due in no small part to a decades-long partnership between government, universities, and private enterprise. Throughout the 20th century, the federal government invested in dams, transportation infrastructure, and military installations that facilitated economic expansion and the emergence of new private industries.
And according to a new report released today by the Brookings Institution Metropolitan Policy Program, the Mountain West has a pivotal role to play in securing our nation's clean energy future.
In the report, "Centers of Invention: Leveraging the Mountain West Innovation Complex for Energy System Transformation," Brookings' Mark Muro and Sarah Rahman detail the unique role that the Mountain West region (Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Nevada, New Mexico and Utah) can play in driving innovation to make clean energy cheap and ubiquitous. Building off of their 2009 proposal for energy discovery innovation institutes (E-DIIs), the new report also proposes the creation of four to six new "federally funded, commercialization-oriented, and broadly collaborative energy research and innovation centers," intended to align existing regional assets to accelerate technology commercialization.
This latest Brookings' publication adds to a clear and growing consensus among leading policy organizations that new research and commercialization paradigms are needed to overcome the disjointed and overly stove-piped nature of today's national energy innovation system. Last year, the Breakthrough Institute and Third Way proposed the creation of a National Institutes of Energy--an institution with similar goals.
There are numerous bottlenecks that slow or prevent the successful commercialization of advanced, next-generation technologies, according to the report. These challenges include the price gap between new clean energy technologies and incumbent, low-cost competitors; limited private sector capital; spillover risks from research that cause firms to focus on short-term, low-risk research and product development; and a general disconnect between publicly funded research and technology commercialization in the private marketplace.
Combine that with the federal government's anemic support for energy research and development (R&D)--about $3 billion annually and an order of magnitude less than what the government invests in health and defense-related research--and you have a recipe for a stagnant energy sector ill-equipped to meet the nation's climate and clean energy goals.
Fortunately, notes the report, the Mountain West region already offers many existing assets that can help advance the nation's clean energy priorities. These assets include world-leading federal energy research facilities, such as the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) in Colorado and the Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) in New Mexico; leading universities conducting path-breaking research on biomass and biofuels (University of Idaho), nuclear (UNLV), and solar (University of Arizona), among others; and abundant supplies of sustainable energy resources. For example, every Mountain West state ranks within the top ten nationally for solar power potential and all have high-temperature geothermal resources. Three states--Colorado, New Mexico, and Idaho--rank among the top 15 nationally in wind power potential.
To leverage these regional strengths, Brookings recommends creating a network of energy innovation centers, funded at levels similar to the national labs today, intended to facilitate partnerships among leading universities, labs, and industry to conduct translational R&D capable of both addressing national energy priorities and stimulating regional and national economic growth. The centers would leverage existing regional advantages by pursuing research and commercialization activities organized around themes that are largely determined by the private market. For example, southern Nevada and Arizona, already national leaders in solar energy innovation and production, could coordinate with universities and leading private solar developers to host a solar energy innovation center to conduct research on the entire solar energy supply chain.
The new report clearly indicates the innovation potential of the country's regional assets. Last June, Brookings released a similar report highlighting the strong energy innovation resources of the United States' Great Lakes region. Together, these findings show, unequivocally, that nascent clusters of clean energy innovation and production are forming throughout the country, and that with the right type of integrated public-private partnership, these clusters can transform America's energy system and its economy.
In the wake of the United States failed cap and trade experiment, it is time for Congress to get behind this bold new research effort and finally make progress on our climate and energy challenges.
Devon Swezey is Project Director at the Breakthrough Institute, and co-author of "Rising Tigers, Sleeping Giant: Asian Nations Set to Dominate the Clean Energy Race by Out-Investing the United States."
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