All posts by Clifton Yin

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Ernest Moniz’ Confirmation Hearing Underscores Importance of Innovation

MIT physics professor Dr. Ernest Moniz has yet to receive Senate confirmation to serve as the nation’s next Energy Secretary, let alone begin his tenure. This hasn’t stopped speculation about what a Moniz-led Department of Energy (DOE) might look like. National Journal quotes one Brookings Institution scholar as saying “I think it will be a very different agency than it was in the first term. Ernie knows climate change, but also unconventional oil and gas and coal and nuclear. He will push the president towards a more balanced policy.” But if Dr. Moniz’ comments during his confirmation hearing yesterday are any indication of what would come from a department under his leadership, clean energy innovation has a good chance of remaining a top priority for the DOE.

Although the hearing covered a host of topics, ranging from cybersecurity to nuclear waste cleanup, the importance of public investment in research and development emerged as a topic of discussion at several points. Moniz’ opening statement actually started with a strong defense of a continued DOE role in research: “More than a hundred Nobel Prizes have resulted from DOE-associated research. DOE operates an … Read the rest

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Fear Not, Australia Cabinet Merger is Actually Better For Climate Change Mitigation

Last week, the Australian government announced the merger of two cabinet-level departments, the Department of Climate Change and Energy Efficiency and the Department of Industry, Innovation, Science, Research and Tertiary Education. Unfortunately, moving the stand-alone department on climate change has raised concerns that Australia is taking the climate change challenge less seriously. But the merger is actually a welcome sign of growing international recognition that innovation policy and climate change mitigation are inescapably linked and it should further mitigation efforts, not hinder them.

On the one hand, Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard describes the creation of the new Department of Industry, Innovation, Climate Change, Science, Research and Tertiary Education as “inevitable, natural, logical.” On the other hand, the leader of the Australian Greens, an opposition party, criticizes the move as a “retreat on addressing global warming.” But the Gillard government has already demonstrated a firm commitment to combating climate change with the recent creation of entities like the Climate Commission, an independent source of information about the science of climate change, and the Climate Change Authority, which provides expert advice to the Australian government on climate change mitigation … Read the rest

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ARPA-E Expands Pursuit of Transportation Decarbonization

Today, the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) announced funding opportunities for two new programs, each with $20 million, aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions from cars and trucks. The first, Reducing Emissions Using Methanotrophic Organisms for Transportation Energy (REMOTE), is focused on developing improved biological technologies to convert natural gas to liquids for transportation fuels, while the second, Modern Electro/Thermochemical Advancements for Light-Metal Systems (METALS), is geared towards improving the manufacturing and recycling of light metals for use in vehicles. (No one can fault the agency’s efforts to create clever acronyms). The move signals emerging government recognition of the importance of transportation decarbonization and the need for a range of innovative transportation technologies to facilitate that endeavor.

Cutting transportation sector emissions is critical to mitigating climate change. The ITIF report Shifting Gears notes that more than 20 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions can be attributed to cars and light trucks. Furthermore, the report observes, the number of those vehicles on the road globally is estimated to grow more than 47 percent from 750 million in 2010 to 1.1 billion in 2039.

Fittingly, the federal government … Read the rest

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Policymakers Share Common Ground on Energy Revenue, But Can They Deliver?

Yesterday, Senators Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) and Mary Landrieu (D-LA) introduced the Fixing America’s Inequality with Revenues (FAIR) Act, which would allow coastal states to collect a portion of the revenues of offshore energy production. Specifically, it provides royalty revenues from offshore oil and gas development to coastal states. States would automatically receive 27.5 percent of royalty revenues, but be eligible for an additional 10 percent provided they “establish funds to support projects relating to clean energy or conservation.” Today, coastal states outside of the Gulf of Mexico don’t receive any royalty revenue at all. While it is unclear what exactly these funds would entail, the emergence of the FAIR Act and President Obama’s recent Energy Security Trust Fund proposal reflects growing interest in linking energy production to energy innovation.

The FAIR Act is motivated in large part by a desire to financially empower coastal states and is only the latest attempt to expand state revenue sharing from offshore fossil fuel development. In 2006, The New Orleans Times-Picayune noted that a bill by Senator Landrieu “gave Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi and Texas 37.5 percent of proceeds from fuel production in the Gulf, … Read the rest

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Energy Security Trust Fund an Important Policy Pilot for Supporting Innovation

Last Friday, President Obama reiterated his support for the creation of an Energy Security Trust Fund during a speech at the Argonne National Laboratory, something he first proposed in his 2013 State of the Union address.  Specifically, according to a fact sheet released by the White House, the fund would provide $2 billion over ten years for research on cleaner transportation alternatives such as advanced biofuels and advanced batteries for electric vehicles, derived from royalty revenues from federal oil and gas development. The Energy Collective’s Jesse Jenkins and Brookings Institution senior fellow Mark Muro have already provided thoughtful commentary on the proposal (here and here, respectively), but here are a few important takeaways.

Tying next-generation transportation energy R&D to a dedicated revenue source is a welcome step towards consistently funding energy R&D overall. Federal energy research and development is severely underfunded. For years, energy policy experts and stakeholders have advocated for an annual federal energy R&D budget of $15 billion or more. Yet according to the Energy Innovation Tracker, federal funding for energy R&D totaled just $3.6 billion in fiscal year 2012. In comparison, the Defense … Read the rest

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Innovation Partnerships Will Only Grow in Importance

Public investment in clean energy innovation in general – both in the United States and abroad – is limited and underwhelming. For example, while the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) has done good work, an annual budget of several hundred million dollars which has to be renewed by Congress year after year is insufficient for developing the clean energy technology needed to mitigate climate change. Unfortunately, the private sector has also traditionally underfunded research, development, and demonstration, key pieces of the energy innovation puzzle – which is why Scientific American writer Melissa Lott’s recent look at the trend of “innovation partnerships” is so encouraging.

According to Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF), while global clean energy investment (public and private) in 2012 totaled $268.7 billion, only $30.2 billion, or a little more than 11 percent, went to research and development. Worse, total investment in the United States dropped by 32 percent. Furthermore, BNEF’s findings mirror that of Cleantech Group, which estimates that global clean-technology venture investment fell to $6.46 billion in 2012 – down 33 percent from the $9.61 billion invested the previous year. “Venture capitalists,” the San Jose Mercury News Read the rest

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The Tesla-Broder Debate and What It Says About Decarbonizing Transportation

The Electric Highway

The New York Times reporter John Broder recently published his account of an East Coast road trip he took with the Tesla Model S electric vehicle (EV). It marked an important development: Tesla has opened two new public “supercharging” stations some 200 miles apart in Delaware and Connecticut that can fully replenish the Model S battery in an hour and potentially provide consumers the ability to drive the well-traveled Interstate 95 corridor at near-zero carbon emissions. Unfortunately, Broder’s test results came up short, showing the limitations of existing EV technology, the need for more innovation, and the division of opinions on how the United States should decarbonize transportation.

The set-up was simple: Broder was to travel from Washington D.C. to Milford, Connecticut in the souped-up Model S. But according to Broder, he faced a host of inconveniences as the Model S fell short of its projected 300 mile range, resulting in the car losing charge mid-drive and the need to re-route to find additional charging stations. Since then, he and Tesla CEO Elon Musk have traded accusatory statements, (Musk, Broder, Musk, … Read the rest

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ARPA-E’s RANGE Program Will Boost Battery Innovation

On the eve of their annual Energy Innovation Summit, the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) has announced funding for a new program focused on improving electric vehicle (EV) battery technologies. The new Robust Affordable Next Generation Energy Storage Systems (RANGE) program “seeks to improve EV range and reduce vehicle costs by re-envisioning the total EV battery system, rather than working to increase the energy density of individual battery cells,” as stated in the agency’s press release. The program’s establishment represents just the latest positive sign of the Energy Department’s commitment to foster battery innovation.

As MIT Technology Review reported last year, a $2.4 billion grant program under the 2009 Stimulus resulted in a substantial gap between domestic EV battery production capacity and actual battery demand. To be sure, while manufacturing capability is essential, demand for EVs and EV batteries by extension will only grow when battery technology can exceed expectations. And to accomplish that goal, ITIF has argued, policymakers need to emphasize battery innovation and “put the battery before the electric vehicle” – a need that has been underlined by the recent Broder-Tesla spat. Fortunately, the … Read the rest

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Unanswered EI 2013 Questions on Nuclear and Energy Storage

During the Energy Innovation 2013 conference at the end of January, panel moderators fielded hand-written questions submitted by the audience. Time was limited and many questions went unasked. Fortunately, the moderator of the panel on nuclear power and energy storage, IEEE Spectrum Associate Editor Eliza Strickland, as well as two of her panelists, author Gwyneth Cravens and Ambri CEO Phil Giudice, have since taken the time to respond to a few of them.

What are the cost differences between new nuclear in the U.S. v. China? What explains the difference? What if anything can be learned from China’s nuclear development?

ELIZA STRICKLAND:

It’s impossible to compare the costs of nuclear development in the US vs China, because the Chinese government is not at all transparent about its nuclear policies or practices. Analysts are forced to cobble together an understanding based on talks at international conferences, articles in the Chinese newspapers, and the occasional official pronouncement. The World Nuclear Association does a great job of keeping track of the situation, and updates its China page regularly: http://www.world-nuclear.org/info/inf63.html.

As for what, if anything, can be learned from China’s example, … Read the rest

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Highlights of Senator Murkowski’s Energy 20/20 Policy Blueprint

On Monday, Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski, the ranking Republican on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, released a comprehensive, 121-page energy policy blueprint featuring about 200 policy recommendations spanning fossil fuels, clean energy technology, environmental responsibility, and effective government. “Energy 20/20 presents my vision for how we can move forward,” the Senator noted in a speech during the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners’ (NARUC) Winter Committee Meetings. “Call it a conversation starter.” As The Washington Post’s Brad Plumer points out in a great breakdown of the document, while “many of the proposals…are long-standing items on the Republican wish list,” “she also touches on smaller issues that don’t get as much attention.” More importantly, Senator Murkowski has included several policy recommendations that mirror ITIF’s own – here are a few highlights.

First, Energy 20/20 calls for greatly expanded domestic energy production, involving everything from oil and natural gas to more overlooked energy sources like hydropower and geothermal. In regard to oil and gas, for example, the blueprint advocates opening up the Outer Continental Shelf off the coast of Virginia and the Carolinas, as well as 2,000 acres in … Read the rest