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DOE Gearing Up For Quadrennial Technology Review

One of the big gaps in federal energy innovation policy has been the lack of overarching vision or strategy to define how to get where we need to go. When the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) released its major report last fall on accelerating energy technology (PDF), they made the establishment of such a strategy their highest recommendation. The proposal was modeled in part after the Quadrennial Defense Review. Per the Council:

The President should establish a Quadrennial Energy Review (QER) process that will provide a multiyear roadmap that lays out an integrated view of short-, intermediate-, and long-term energy objectives; outlines legislative proposals to Congress; puts forward anticipated Executive actions coordinated across multiple agencies; and identifies resource requirements for the development and implementation of energy technologies.

In PCAST’s vision, this review would begin with DOE, but ultimately come to encompass the entire array of federal energy policy work, inside and outside DOE, by the middle of the decade.

In the months since, the Department of Energy has taken up this recommendation and begun to move forward on what is now being called the Quadrennial Technology Review (QTR), in a nice bit of re-framing I applaud. Last month, the agency issued a framing document and a request for information (both available here), with the window to submit commentary closing April 15. Some of the open questions deal with technology mission scope, how to balance international competitiveness and cooperation, and how to approach technology demonstration, which has long been a challenge for federal agencies. They’ve also released a series of (relatively mundane) videos to provide more info. The first is embedded below, with the rest available via the QTR website.

Why does all this matter? The national energy policy system is in many ways a mishmash of competing interests, goals, and agencies. Apart from DOE, several other agencies’ work has implications for energy innovation, including EPA, the Department of Defense, Agriculture, Education, and many others, not to mention disparate Congressional oversight authority. There are also competing, regionally diverse energy sources and technologies, each with its own set of private and public actors involved. To quote again PCAST:

“Energy policy” is an amalgam, and often a derivative product, of a wide range of policies directed at the environment, economic competitiveness, national security, taxes, technology, land use, and more.

The result is a suboptimal energy innovation ecosystem – one where policies that impact invention, development, commercialization, and diffusion are often misaligned and uncoordinated, and even in conflict. Getting all of these ducks in a row is important to ensure coherent policy that allows innovation to flourish and drives clean technology. But to do so means treating the entire policy system as a single entity with multiple components, rather than multiple entities with disparate goals and objectives, and ensuring all the pieces fit together – from federal labs, to the rules and management of public-private ventures, to the tax system, to education, to regulatory and transmission policy.

And it also means fully grasping the opportunities and challenges for the whole menu of clean technology options through technology roadmapping. Roadmaps identify barriers and milestones for technology development, and serve as useful guides for further work. The International Energy Agency has done some exceptional work in roadmapping, and the Department of Energy also pursues such efforts internally (see, for example, their roadmaps for algal biofuels and nuclear R&D). An effective national strategy that leads to more coordinated policy would no doubt make these cleantech goals more achievable. We’ll see what comes of these efforts.

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