When President Barack Obama visits Cleveland on Tuesday to talk about entrepreneurship and innovation, he will find a city and state where those forces are driving a revolution in clean, green energy -- and where a greater federal commitment to energy innovation can secure our national competitiveness.
Northeast Ohio entrepreneurs are building an innovation ecosystem in clean-energy technologies and pushing the region and state into national leadership. NorTech, the regional technology-promoting nonprofit, has pulled together more than 400 public and private partners to create a cluster of advanced-energy innovation. Case Western Reserve University's Great Lakes Energy Institute is conducting cutting-edge research into improvements in power generation, storage and transportation.
All over Ohio, advanced energy is spawning employment: The industry already accounts for more than 35,000 jobs in Ohio -- more than all but three other states. Toledo gave birth to one of the world's largest solar-power companies. Some 90 manufacturers are supplying parts for wind turbines.
And we hope the most visible symbol of Ohio's place in this 21st-century economy will soon sprout from Lake Erie near downtown: a wind-turbine farm that will energize homes and help position our region as a global leader in the freshwater wind-power niche.
But the president and his cabinet must depart from Cleveland State University with the clear understanding that all of this progress is precarious. Without substantial federal and state investment, leadership and policy change, energy innovation in Ohio and all across the United States will short-circuit.
If America wants to lead the next great growth industry, it's imperative that we make a serious national commitment to advanced energy technology. Today, the United States spends more on potato chips than federal energy research and development, and continues to spend billions of tax dollars subsidizing fossil fuels. The results are clear: Since the 1970s, the United States has failed to cut our dependence on fossil fuels. Meanwhile, China recently announced a plan to invest a whopping $740 billion in its clean-tech industry over the next decade.
Recognizing this challenge, a growing group of business leaders, scientists and economists has settled on a target for increased federal energy R&D: $15 billion, compared to the current level of about $3 billion. The consensus extends from a coalition of business titans including Bill Gates and GE Chairman and CEO Jeffrey Immelt, to dozens of Nobel Prize-winning scientists, to the president's chief technology advisers. This investment, they argue, can drive down the price of low-carbon energy, help regain U.S. clean-tech leadership and spur the development of entirely new industries. The Obama administration's latest budget proposes a $750 million increase in annual energy innovation spending -- a critical first step.
For decades, the Department of Defense has been hugely successful at fostering breakthrough technology. Al Gore didn't invent the Internet, but an organization called the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency did -- along with the GPS in your phone, speech-translation technology, stealth planes and much more. Today, a new organization modeled after DARPA at the Department of Energy, called ARPA-E, is doing the same for energy technology, and it has already leveraged more than $100 million in private capital. Similar to a venture capital firm, ARPA-E can direct federal energy-research dollars to drive innovation and growth, and eventually pay for itself many times over.
Our nation's track record is indisputable: When the United States wants to lead, we make a national commitment and invest the necessary resources. Since World War II, few policies have enjoyed as much bipartisan support as research and development. President Franklin D. Roosevelt's Manhattan Project created the nuclear power industry; Presidents Dwight Eisenhower's and John Kennedy's post-Sputnik programs sparked the information technology and aerospace revolution; and Reagan's investments in defense technology helped win the Cold War.
Energy innovation won't solve all of America's and Ohio's economic woes, and broader federal support is necessary to spur clean-energy deployment and manufacturing, including a national target for clean-energy production. But public investment in technology innovation was central to making the 20th century the American century, and with bold federal commitment today, the United States might begin achieving the energy revolution we need.
This post was originally published by The Plain Dealer and was co-authored by Ronald B. Richard.
Ronald B. Richard is president and CEO of the Cleveland Foundation. Teryn Norris is president and founder of Americans for Energy Leadership, a national energy policy advocacy group.