Innovation leaders to Congress: Don’t kill our future with cuts to research programs
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Leaders of American innovation came to Washington recently with a clear message to Congress: Don’t abandon our companies, our investors, and our country’s competitiveness in the global race for energy technology.

Nothing less is at stake as congressional appropriators this week prepare to take up proposals to eviscerate funding for the Department of Energy’s (DOE) basic clean energy research, development, and deployment programs.

“We cannot afford to abandon our progress now,” said Dr. Emily Reichert, CEO of the nation’s largest cleantech business incubator, Greentown Labs in Boston.

David Kenney, president of Portland, Ore.-based cleantech incubator OregonBest, was even more direct: “While not all of our portfolio companies rely on DOE (or other federal) funding, those that do would be negatively impacted if the programs went away. For some, they would fold up shop and look for a job at another company, letting their innovation sit on the shelf or, possibly, selling it to an overseas investor or competitor for a fraction of its potential value.”

The same themes could be heard from other cleantech incubators from across the country – Detroit, New York, Los Angeles and elsewhere. Together, they represent hundreds of small businesses and researchers that are developing the world’s next solar cells, batteries, automobiles and fuels, creating jobs and driving investments along the way.

The funding cuts that the U.S. House of Representatives are now considering would devastate many of those companies. They would threaten the future of the 3 million Americans who now work in clean energy, and stifle one of our country’s most promising job engines. And they could cede American leadership in clean energy innovation to other countries eager to pick up the pioneering work that President Trump and Congress seems ready to leave behind.

The House appropriations bill, in contrast to what the Senate debated last week, includes a disastrous $1 billion, or almost 50 percent cut to DOE’s Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE) office. It also includes President Trump’s request to eliminate the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) and the Loan Program Office, and makes other cuts that are already casting a pall over the otherwise sunny cleantech industry in America.

Technology startups rely on ARPA-E and the highly successful loan guarantee program to bridge the critical “valley of death” between basic research and development and commercialization. These investments also link universities and businesses to one another through grants and research dollars not available from the private sector. 

Cutting these programs would be a self-inflicted wound to American innovation and our economy. A recent report from the National Academies found that ARPA-E has been overwhelmingly successful in promoting new technologies. And the EERE gets a 20 percent annual return on investment—a figure that would make even a real estate tycoon envious.

In addition to much needed R&D, American businesses have been successfully tapping into DOE’s loan program office to develop new ideas and innovations, such as the nation’s first five utility-scale photovoltaic solar projects larger than 100 megawatts. It’s also provided critical early stage funding for companies that make electric vehicles and advanced nuclear reactors. Overall, the projects supported by the office represent $50 billion in new investments, creating or saving some 56,000 American jobs.

In addition to creating jobs and driving economic growth, projects resulting from DOE loans have reduced air pollution, preventing 34.7 million metric tons of CO2 emissions — equivalent to taking 7.3 million cars off the road —and saving some 1.7 billion gallons of gasoline.

The proposed DOE cuts will only put the United States further behind in the global race for innovation, ensuring that the ideas for the next solar cell or battery technology never make their way out of our national labs. The U.S. currently ranks only 12th in R&D spending as a percentage of GDP. Other countries are more than eager to invest in the future when we are not. China, for instance, recently announced it will invest $361 billion in renewable energy over the next three years. By comparison, the budget President Trump proposed for EERE is $160 million, down from $762 million a year earlier.

The U.S. has become a global energy technology superpower thanks to public investments in research, development and deployment. We created the technology behind solar cells. We created the shale gas revolution. We perfected the internal combustion engine and pioneered the latest electric vehicles. We brought down the costs of wind and solar power, high-efficiency lighting, air conditioners and appliances through technology innovation.

Now is not the time to relinquish this progress and squander our momentum.

Congress and our president should listen to the businesses, innovators, investors and others on the front lines of American innovation, and not cede our leadership to the rest of the world with draconian cuts to our basic energy research programs. 

Bob Keefe is executive director of the national nonpartisan business group E2, whose members have founded or funded more than 2,500 companies, created more than 600,000 jobs and collectively control $100 billion in venture and private equity capital.

The views expressed by this author are their own and are not the views of The Hill.