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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 unparalleled national laboratory system and partners with both universities and industry at the research frontier…DOE should continue to support a robust R&D portfolio of low-carbon options: efficiency, renewables, nuclear, carbon capture and sequestration, energy storage.”

Furthermore, when Senator Al Franken pressed him on the appropriate level of energy research funding, Dr. Moniz responded that the United States is “underinvesting by a factor of three, roughly.” According to the Energy Innovation Tracker, funding for energy R&D – including basic science – across the entire federal government totaled a little over $5 billion in fiscal year 2012. (In comparison, the Defense Department’s R&D budget that year was $72.3 billion, or more than 20 times as much.) Dr. Moniz is thus in agreement with ITIF and many other energy innovation experts, who have long been calling for a minimum annual federal commitment of $15 billion to energy R&D – since at least the 2011 Climate Pragmatism report, for example. (After the confirmation hearing, The Washington Post’s Brad Plumer actually used ITIF data to illustrate the stark reality of federal underinvestment in energy R&D.)

Both Dr. Moniz and Senator Franken agreed on the important point that underinvestment in energy innovation policies in general and energy R&D in particular, even in a time of fiscal austerity, is “penny wise and pound foolish,” pointing to the shale gas revolution as a potent example of a robust return on public investment in energy technology development. In fact, when Senator Rob Portman questioned the desirability of the DOE’s increased focus on energy innovation policies like the Clean Energy Manufacturing Initiative, Dr. Moniz offered a strong defense. As ITIF pointed out at Ideas Lab, “Manufacturing has been an overlooked and underfunded component of the nation’s economic competitiveness strategy for far too long and it’s particularly important for the nascent clean energy economy.”

Finally, Dr. Moniz made several unsolicited references to his desire for a Quadrennial Energy Review (QER), a welcome initiative that could help focus and improve the government’s effort to foster clean energy innovation. Dr. Moniz has called for a QER since at least 2011, when he testified about the idea in the context of “the need to accelerate energy technology innovation.” The DOE conducted a Quadrennial Technology Review that year, but a QER would differ from that document in its encompassing the federal government as a whole. As ITIF opined at the time, “Given inherent technology challenges and market failures in the energy space, and the public good impacts and externalities associated with energy use, government has a central role to play in filling gaps in the innovation ecosystem and accelerating technology development in close collaboration with the private sector. We’re hopeful that a quadrennial [energy] review process will help lead to a coherent overall policy approach that works in sync across agencies and institutions to drive innovation.” Notably, Senator Chris Coons recently introduced legislation mandating a QER every four years.

With Dr. Moniz well on his way to becoming the nation’s next Energy Secretary, it is promising to see that he appreciates the importance of energy innovation policy. Without question, innovation needs to be central to his agenda should he have the privilege to lead the DOE in President Obama’s second term.

Photo credit: Flickr (Creative Commons license).

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