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Nation's Leading Universities Draw Bottom Line on Clean Energy R&D Funding in Senate Climate Bill

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

This is a guest post by Yael Borofsky

The nation's leading research universities are calling on the Senate to ensure dramatically more funding for clean energy R&D in the Senate climate and energy bill, investments they described as necessary to achieve the bill's targeted deep cuts in emissions.

In a letter delivered to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid earlier this month, the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities (APLU) and the Association of American Universities (AAU) wrote:

"As the Senate moves forward with climate change legislation, we strongly urge you to ensure the amount of R&D funding designated for clean energy technologies is more in line with the President's proposal of $15 billion."

APLU and AAU collectively represent most of the nation's public and private research universities, and their letter imparts a pointed criticism of the House-passed ACES bill, calling for a frontloaded investment in research and development to kick-start critical clean energy innovation. The letter draws an apparent bottom line for the nation's top research universities, calling for dedicated R&D funding from the climate bill's cap and trade allowance revenues that totals at least one third of the $15 billion per year proposed by President Barack Obama.

The letter (pdf) and the accompanying "Climate Change R&D Funding Discussion Paper,"(pdf) warn that the U.S. is seriously under-investing in the kind of clean energy research and development that will allow the U.S. to realize a clean energy future, mitigate climate change, and maintain competitiveness with nations ramping up efforts to lead in clean technology innovation:

Today our federal energy R&D expenditures are just one-fifth of their 1980 peak as a percentage of GDP. Indeed, since 1980 the U.S. federal investment in energy dropped from 10 percent of total government R&D investments to just two percent today. This underinvestment has left our current knowledge base and our available clean energy technologies inadequate to tackle the looming energy and climate challenges.

The letter goes on to remind Senator Reid that both President Barack Obama and Energy Secretary Steven Chu have repeatedly expressed a vision of a clean energy future and called for significant investments in the research and development of clean technology despite the fact that House-passed ACES and the current Senate draft of the bill " are not sufficient to let the US meet its goals." In the associated fact sheet, AAU and APLU drill right down to the critical importance of these R&D investments (emphasis in original):

The American Clean Energy and Security (ACES) Act calls for an 83% reduction in US carbon emissions by the year 2050. Without significant advances in science and technology, the incentives now provided in ACES and other laws are not sufficient to let the US meet its goals. Many studies have recommended major increases in both Federal and private sector energy R&D to do this; thus the President, in his FY10 Budget, calls for creating a "Clean Energy Technology Fund" of $15 billion per year for 10 years. We need a major effort to obtain the basic scientific knowledge to develop and implement the technologies needed to eliminate the projected growth in the use of fossil fuels, and then to displace five of every six barrels of oil and tons of coal with renewable and nuclear energy, and enhanced energy efficiency.

The organizations proposes that at least $5 billion in revenue from emissions allowances "be allocated to conducting the research necessary to accelerate" clean energy innovation and that investment in "research and training must be frontloaded," due to the urgency with which the U.S. must research, develop, and deploy clean energy technology. The discussion paper outlines a proposal for the creation of an ACES Research Fund held by the Treasury and overseen by the Secretary of Energy, that will aggregate and then redistribute the proceeds from allowance sales to programs focused on basic or applied research in at least one of the following areas:

  • new lower, or zero, carbon emission energy resources and technologies, including in energy efficiency
  • improved methods for sequestering greenhouse gases
  • climate change research, including its modeling, monitoring, and analysis
  • the economic and social factors effecting consumer energy use

The letter and discussion paper echo the Breakthrough Institute, as well as previous letters to Congress from energy and research experts on the need for energy investment in R&D, by calling attention to the egregious lack of funding that would be directed towards these efforts under ACES and pointing out that basic and applied research plays a critical role in bringing clean energy off the shelf and making it cheap and abundant.

Although the proposal calls for a bottom line investment of $5 billion per year -- significantly less than the levels called for by President Barack Obama, Breakthrough Institute, Third Way, Brookings Institution and others -- this would still be considerably more than the $1 billion that would be allocated under ACES and the $1.2-2.2 billion allocated under the latest draft of the Kerry-Boxer climate bill.

This direct outreach from the leadership of America's universities, major centers for clean energy research and development, comes at a critical time as the Senate version of the climate and energy bill continues to be developed and tweaked. As the letter makes clear, Reid and the Senate now have the responsibility to ensure that long-term clean energy R&D efforts are given the funding they desperately need to secure America's leadership in clean energy innovation, maintain our economic competitiveness and achieve our vision of a clean energy future.