In just a few years, Congress has made more progress on clean energy policy than it’s made in history. Through four transformative bills, our government made momentous investments that will move us closer to an energy future that is clean, secure, affordable, and abundant. So far, the Department of Energy, the Treasury Department, and other federal agencies have done a tremendous job establishing new programs, releasing funding opportunities, and offering guidance for grants, loans, and tax incentives. As a result, we have real hope that we can achieve a swift and equitable clean energy transition.
That hope isn’t just a result of the progress we’ve made though, but what that progress signals is possible. Our job is far from done and we’re going to continue to need bipartisan congressional leadership and swift action from our federal workforce to meet our climate goals. In the time since these bills became law, we’ve been thinking hard at Breakthrough Energy about what remaining gaps in our innovation ecosystem need to be filled, and there are plenty.
If we are to reach our clean energy potential, the United States must create a new vision for how to fully unleash our innovative capacity – to drive discovery where it’s needed, accelerate development, and lay a smooth path to deployment.
In this post, our team outlines three core steps that we believe will help further this vision, and we’ll continue to dig into these ideas as we work to define the next frontier of federal innovation policy.
A comprehensive federal innovation investment strategy.
Over the next 30 years, the United States must invest in clean energy innovation in a sustained and strategic way. Thus far, we’ve relied on incremental annual increases and periodic surges of funding to advance innovation across all sectors. The result has created strong federal programs in some areas and severe underinvestment in others, with little room to pivot investments based on evolving needs.
Given the scale of the climate challenge before us, the United States requires a multi-year federal strategy for advancing clean energy innovation through every stage of the technology development process and across all sectors. A national innovation strategy, if done well, could provide a detailed blueprint for how to advance a whole portfolio of innovations efficiently and thoughtfully over time. It can help the government think through future budgeting needs based on where we need to be 5, 10 and 20 years from now, and clarify how to rebalance public support for clean energy based on specific needs in different sectors of the economy.
Ambitious clean energy policies like a new Fast Track program.
Regular and ambitious federal investment in clean energy technologies is one key piece of the puzzle, but it’s insufficient on its own. There are other aspects of federal support that are in need of a revamp to make sure startups and innovators are getting appropriate and timely support. Think of water moving through a pipe: you can pump more water through to try and increase the flow, but if the pipe has holes or obstructions, then pumping more will only help so much.
The federal government needs to create a better pipeline, or, in real terms, a state-of-the-art approach to spurring innovation: one that looks for creative approaches to our biggest remaining challenges, and ensures they can be seamlessly supported with public funding until the private sector can take over.
To do this, the DOE could take inspiration from other federal agencies and create an energy innovation Fast Track program that amplifies and compliments the agency’s other energy programs. A Fast Track program would provide key technologies with dedicated staff, access to resources, and flexible funding to remove barriers to commercialization. The DOE Fast Track could:
- aggregate high-impact technology projects and provide them with dedicated resources and staff,
- partner with regional, state, and local stakeholders, and
- serve as the connective tissue and central location for clean energy startups and companies that are moving their technology forward from early- to late-stage.
DOE could exponentially increase the number of innovative solutions hitting the market by marshaling the talents of its employees, the expertise within the national labs, and newer tools, like the recently authorized DOE Foundation for Energy Security and Innovation (FESI), a non-profit foundation that is formally tied to DOE’s mission.
Leverage the power and ingenuity of different regions across the United States.
Finally, we need to utilize the unique expertise that exists across the country to move innovation forward. Regional innovation ecosystems have the power to catalyze public and private resources, create jobs and new facilities, and accelerate innovation in diverse areas across the United States. However, at present, innovation ecosystems are highly concentrated in a few geographic regions which leaves out significant chunks of the US and curbs the opportunity to develop and scale innovation at the scale needed.
We see two key ways to act.
First, recently passed legislation will offer the opportunity to expand innovation opportunities to new and growing regional ecosystems, crowding in more communities to share in the benefits of federal funding and contribute breakthrough solutions. As the federal government continues implementing its new programs – including its large-scale hubs programs – it should be thoughtful about how and where it’s developing its innovation ecosystems.
Second, the federal government should do more to realize the potential of recent authorizations in the CHIPS and Science Act to build new regional programs dedicated to spurring innovation, like NSF’s Regional Innovation Engines and the Regional Clean Energy Partnerships program at DOE. Funding these programs will be the first step towards building a broader network of clean energy ecosystems that ensure innovators can accelerate their ideas and technologies can be built, manufactured, and deployed in more locations. These programs, along with improved private sector and community stakeholder engagement, can help bridge the gaps we see across the country in the energy transition and catalyze future industries and jobs.
The path to solving climate change is neither simple nor easy, but it is undeniable that the opportunities in front of us would be enormous steps in the right direction. Not only can we make further progress on developing and deploying the breakthrough technologies we need, but we can also spread economic and near-term environmental benefits across the globe as we do it. We can thank many for getting us here, and we will continue to rely on our diverse and bipartisan partners to keep pushing us forward.