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Climate Hawks Should Aggressively Support the America COMPETES Act

Making Innovation Part of Climate Hawks Policy Pitch

In a previous article I argued that climate policy advocates should make energy innovation part of their policy elevator pitch. A good opportunity to start is now available through the debate on reforming and re-authorizing the America COMPETES Act.

Within the climate advocacy community there are those that argue for aggressive clean energy innovation policy (such as myself) and those that argue for aggressive deployment of existing clean energy technologies (such as Center for American Progress’s Joe Romm and’s Bill McKibben). Each provides different policy emphasis and nuance. Today, deployment policies receive higher priority, reflected in it dominating the narrative among advocates as well as dominating the portfolio of U.S. public investments in clean energy. As a result, conflict occurs over what policy changes should be made.

As Grist’s Dave Roberts argues (correctly to a degree), both “camps” agree on a lot and everyone should aggressively work for clean energy to be a national priority to “lift all boats,”—both innovation and deployment of today’s technologies alike. How then should this consensus be reflected in our pitches to policymakers?

In my earlier piece I proposed what my two minute energy innovation pitch would look like, but many climate hawks like Bill McKibben (in the comment section here) asked how they could advocate for more specific energy innovation policies. Here’s how they can start: push for reform and re-authorization of the America COMPETES Act.

The America COMPETES Act is Important Climate and Innovation Policy

Don’t be fooled by the lack of “climate” in the policy title — COMPETES is just as important to addressing climate change as it is to its originally stated goal of strengthening U.S. international competitiveness. The legislation, originally enacted in 2007 and reauthorized in 2010, directly supports science and technology institutions that underpin U.S. innovation, particularly in clean energy.

This included calling for the doubling of budgets for key science programs by 2018 that directly impact clean energy, including the Department of Energy’s (DOE) Office of Science and the National Science Foundation (NSF). It also authorized increasing the budget of the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), which supports energy innovation in electric grids, nanotechnology, material science, and manufacturing. Furthermore, COMPETES authorized the creation of DOE’s ARPA-E which invests in breakthrough clean energy technologies. Finally, COMPETES authorized a number of additional institutional reforms to enhance collaborative research, as well as a long list of educational reforms to  increase the number of individuals entering STEM disciplines, a vital component to a growing clean energy industry.

In other words, the COMPETES Act strengthens the very foundation that the emerging clean energy industry must rely on for present and future growth. Without aggressive support for these programs, the U.S. clean energy industry won’t have a strong and constant flow of new ideas and technologies to expand their markets and continuously cut costs. And without reforms to U.S. STEM education policies, emerging high-tech companies in clean energy may not have access to a large pool of qualified scientists and engineers, which will be particularly necessary if the United States continues to push for more competitive energy manufacturing industries.

Congress Must Reform and Reauthorize the America COMPETES Act

This is where climate hawks can play a role. The COMPETES Act must be reauthorized by the end of 2013 to continue support for many of the funding trends, programs, and reforms that are important to climate policy. It is also an opportunity to introduce or extend effective energy innovation programs that will directly impact clean energy. Climate advocates could lend aggressive support for doing both to help ensure that the foundation of U.S. clean energy innovation — and by definition our ability to address climate change — does not deteriorate after 2013.

ITIF recently released a new report that describes 25 policy recommendations Congress should implement as part of the COMPETES reauthorization. A number of these are expressly important to clean energy, so I’ll highlight three groups of proposals here.

First, the COMPETES reauthorization should put the United States back on a path to double funding for key science and technology programs (e.g. DOE Office of Science, NSF, and NIST) by 2018. If you extend the original baseline for doubling the budgets of these agencies from their 2008 starting point, each are about 23 percent below where they should be to meet their 2018 goal, assuming a straight-line increase. If we factor in sequestration, the short-fall is even worse. This is a good opportunity for hawks to support budget increases in key innovation programs that have received overwhelming bipartisan support in the past and are central to climate advocacy.

Second, the COMPETES reauthorization should add significant public support for U.S. advanced manufacturing. One way this could be done is by designating at least 20 U.S. “Manufacturing Universities” that would revamp their engineering programs to focus more on industry-relevant manufacturing engineering rather than just pure engineering science. Some of these manufacturing universities could be designated in states with growing renewable energy industries and could re-orient their engineering programs to focus on manufacturing issues related to next-generation solar cells, new wind turbine blades, new battery chemistries, and additional clean energy technologies.

Another way to support advanced clean energy manufacturing is to fully fund the National Network for Manufacturing Innovation (NNMI). As proposed by ITIF and supported by the Obama Administration, NNMI aims to create 15 industry-defined regional institutes that would bring together universities, companies, and researchers to develop, test, and implement cutting-edge capabilities and equipment. The Presidentannounced the first clean energy-related institute for power electronics manufacturing, which is central to deploying cheaper, more efficient smart grid technologies, electric vehicles, and renewable power. Climate hawks should aggressively support fully funding the initiative (a one-time investment of $1 billion to create the institutes).

In both cases, climate hawk support could accelerate the deployment of clean energy technologies as well as seed domestic firms with high-skilled engineering talent.

Third, the COMPETES reauthorization should reform the DOE’s National Laboratory system to accelerate the transfer of new clean energy technologies from Lab to market. This could include adding more weight for technology transfer in the DOE’s Lab Performance and Evaluation Measurement Plans (PEMP), the equivalent of the Labs’ report card from DOE. As it stands today, moving clean energy technologies to market is a significantly low priority for the Labs, and the PEMP is one of the reasons. Another is to allow the Labs to invest limited “overhead” funds in early-stage demonstration and other technology maturation activities to move research closer to the pilot and proof-of-concept stages, so that clean energy companies can more easily commercialize these technologies. In absence of additional research investment, projects targeted for these funds would just sit on the shelf rather than making U.S. clean energy companies more competitive.

Building climate advocacy support for foundational innovation policies like the America COMPETES Act just makes sense. It helps protect and expand the clean energy research base, enhances the deployment of clean energy technologies, and builds a robust manufacturing and engineering base that U.S. clean energy companies need. This surely fits Dave Roberts’s bill of a “lift all boats” approach to climate policy and it should be an easy rallying point for everyone.

Originally posted on Energy Trends Insider.

Photo: DOE visits to the Nordex USA wind manufacturing facility in Jonesboro, AK.

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