Energy Technology: Deploy What We Have vs. Build Something New

03/02/2015 08:32 am ET | Updated May 02, 2015

Last week, the American Energy Innovation Council, a group of six prominent business leaders, including Bill Gates, issued a report maintaining that the U.S. government is spending far too little on energy research. As Justin Gillis reported in the New York Times:

The leaders pointed out that the United States had fallen behind a slew of other countries in the percentage of economic output being spent on energy research, among them China, Japan, France and South Korea. Their report urged leaders of both political parties to start increasing funds to ultimately triple today's level of research spending...

Not everyone concerned with combating climate change agrees with the council. Some worry that we are depending too much on an imaginary technological fix. Others try to blame the fossil fuel industry or our culture of consumerism. Gillis' piece concludes by quoting former Clinton energy official Joseph Romm who maintained that research:

is only a small part of the answer, and certainly not the most important...[Romm] added that aggressive deployment of existing technologies and a price on emissions of carbon dioxide would go a long way to reduce emissions, and that the latter would help unlock more private innovation.

I am going to side with Bill Gates and his pals on this one. I'm betting on human ingenuity and new technology. There will be no tax on carbon, except very indirectly from EPA's greenhouse gas regulation that will probably begin in about a decade. I have no problem with using existing technology to make our energy system more efficient and renewable; that is the low-hanging fruit we need to deploy immediately to slow the rate of greenhouse gas pollution. But current technology is not good enough. We still need new and transformative technologies to eliminate our addiction to fossil fuels. Fossil fuels are still more convenient and reliable than renewable energy, and often cheaper. This is changing, but large government investments in research and development could lead to the transformative technologies that we need.

There will be no tax on carbon because energy is too central to the economy and economic growth is too central to political regime stability and survival. Gates and his colleagues are making a political case for additional investment in R&D. They are arguing that America's economic competitors are getting in the game and are starting to invest in science. They predict that America's great and prominent research universities will soon face challenges to their dominance. The American Energy Innovation Council correctly connects our research capacity to our economic prominence.

It strikes me that an argument for investment in energy research that originates from visionary American business leaders has a better chance of gaining political traction than an argument for a carbon tax. In today's know-nothing, do-nothing Congress, both could easily fail, but anything called a tax is surely dead on arrival.

I agree with the argument made by Gates et al. that national interest requires investment in research. Moreover, as an employee of an American research university I must confess to a bias based on self-interest. Still, from the perspective of the planet, the breakthrough technology needed to transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy can come from anywhere. In the global economy, national interest is more and more difficult to identify and pursue. Many companies operate in many countries. Innovations are rarely contained by national boundaries and the products we buy are designed in many places and produced in many places. The scientific teams that produce technological breakthroughs may work in a single laboratory, but there is little chance that the scientists on those teams were all born in the U.S.A. At Columbia's Earth Institute, many of our scientists are part of international research projects and global scientific networks.

The best reason for preferring investment in American research universities and national laboratories is not jingoistic pride, but in their tradition of excellence, their amazing capacity, and their high level of performance. We need investments in the best scientists, wherever they are from and wherever they are working. Many of them are working in the United States because of our tradition of free inquiry and the creativity inherent in our pluaralistic, multi-national culture.

The current funding drought for scientific research is having a real and measurable effect on scientific productivity. American research scientists are spending more and more time writing proposals to keep their laboratories funded. They sometimes distort their research agendas to meet the needs of funders. Due to increased requirements for management oversight and reporting, scientists must also set aside time to participate in bookkeeping, performance measurement and other managerial tasks. No single element of the changing environment can be argued against, but taken together, the bureaucratization of science is having a dampening effect on scientific creativity and productivity.

This is a problem throughout the scientific community, and it is troubling, but the lack of investment in energy research is baffling. While our brain-based economy needs scientific research in a wide variety of areas, arguably no single field of research is more important than energy. Starving research on ecology and water resources may be idiotic, but cutting research on renewable energy research is a form of economic suicide. The American Energy Innovation Council builds a strong case for increasing annual investments in clean energy research and development by $11 billion to $16 billion. They note that:

The federal commitment to energy research and development is less than one-half of 1 percent of the annual nationwide energy bill. The United States spends less on energy RD&D than it does on potato and tortilla chips. This is insufficient, and it condemns future generations to fewer options.

American federalism, the global economy, private initiative and human ingenuity have enabled us to make some progress in transitioning to a renewable economy. However, at certain points we run into the dysfunctional disaster we call the American national government and we are unable to move forward. Basic science funding is a national responsibility. Corporations, universities, NGOs, foundations and non-national governments can and do make contributions; but they cannot achieve the scale that requires action from America's national government.

Deploying the technology we have is a necessary but insufficient condition for making the transition to a renewable economy. We need new, transformative technologies. We need solar arrays that are the size of windows, and batteries that can extend the range of electronic vehicles from 200 to 1,000 miles. We need cost-effective methods of capturing and safely storing carbon. The list of needed technologies is as limitless as the funding is limited.