Renewable energy, the best investment of the 21st century

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On Tuesday, just hours before the start of Earth Day, Congress showed there is bipartisan support for smart energy policy. By voice vote, the House of Representatives passed the Energy Efficiency Improvement Act of 2015, which mandates energy efficiency improvements through stronger residential and commercial building codes and other means. The Senate passed the measure in March and it now goes to President Obama for his signature.

Passing the bill is a promising sign, but it should be the beginning of a new congressional approach to clean energy, not a laurel upon which Congress can rest. A significant number of the world's most respected economists believe that renewable energy will be one of the most dynamic and profitable sectors of the global economy in the next 100 years. Nations that provide either mandates or private-sector incentives to develop and commercialize renewable energy technologies through tax credits, loans and innovation funding will have a significant economic advantage over those that do not.

Given that, you might think that Congress would want to help position U.S. companies to attain and maintain a competitive advantage in the critically important global energy race.

To date, that has not been the case. The renewable energy industry has had to fight to gain even a fraction of the federal funding support that traditional energy companies have enjoyed for decades.

That's why it's critical that Congress approve President Obama's budget request of $2.7 billion in clean energy funding for the Department of Energy in fiscal year 2016. These resources would help advance initiatives from sustainable transportation and renewable power to energy efficiency.

Hundreds of companies are developing exciting new technologies ranging from a lightweight, solar-powered pack for soldiers that recharges batteries and purifies water to microgrids—cart-size units that generate and deliver electricity independent of the main power grid. Such units hold immense promise for hospitals, first-responder stations and other critical operations.

Many game-changing technologies were launched with federal funding through the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E), an agency within the Department of Energy, and many more are waiting in the wings.

History shows that such federal investments pay huge dividends. U.S. government support for oil, gas and coal helped kick-start and sustain energy production, affordable electricity and the design, development and proliferation of the internal combustion engine. These industries were once themselves composed of scrappy start-ups, formed to power our economy with what were then emerging technologies. Congress enacted policies and appropriated money to give these companies the boost they needed to get off the ground; our 21st-century energy entrepreneurs deserve the same.

When Congress has passed favorable tax policies for clean energy innovators, the investments have paid off handsomely: Thanks in large part to a federal tax credit, solar power capacity in the United States more than doubled between 2008 and 2012. Since the third quarter of 2010, the average price of a solar panel has dropped 63 percent. At the end of 2014, the sector employed 174,000 people. By the end of this year, solar companies said they expect to add another 36,000 jobs. Much of this might not have happened without government support.

Solar has not been the only renewable energy source to benefit from federal investment. In 1975, Congress authorized a research and development initiative for wind energy, and the Department of Energy's Wind Program was born. In 2011, buoyed by $25 million in Department of Energy funding, the Wind Technology Testing Center opened in Boston as the first facility in the world capable of testing wind blades up to 295 feet long — important because longer wind turbine blades capture more energy than do smaller blades.

Today, because of investments in federal programs and facilities like these, the United States leads the world in wind energy patents. U.S. wind farms generate enough power to supply more than 15 million homes, while supporting 550 domestic manufacturing facilities and some 50,000 full-time jobs. Looking ahead, the Department of Energy projects that wind and solar will account for well over half of the new generating capacity installed in 2015.

These impressive achievements have reduced greenhouse gas emissions while adding jobs to the U.S. economy. And they've been built on partnerships among researchers, industry and government agencies that have played a critical role in fostering breakthroughs in technology maturation and deployment. In fact, a key part of the White House clean energy strategy is to use federal programs to attract $2 billion of expanded private-sector investment in solutions to climate change.

However, if Congress fails to appropriate adequate funding to the Department of Energy's clean energy budget, our entrepreneurs will not get the support they need— which in turn could seriously threaten our competitive advantage.

It would be foolhardy to stanch federal investment in the research, development and commercialization of clean and renewable sources of energy. There is huge money to be made in this sector, which can bolster regional economies, rejuvenate the tax base, enhance our global competitiveness, create hundreds of thousands of new jobs and reduce carbon dioxide emissions that contribute to climate change. If we fail to seize these opportunities, others will do so.

We are a nation of entrepreneurs, and today's energy entrepreneurs — just like the energy entrepreneurs of a century ago — need encouragement and support. Without it, we ultimately will be buying from others what they should be buying from us.

We have led the world in the energy field since our birth as a nation. Now, with the world competing to remake how we produce and consume energy, we must not cede our leadership role. On the contrary, it is time to reassert ourselves in the global energy race.

The bipartisan passage of the Energy Efficiency Improvement Act should mark the first step in that quest. We must now build on that by committing to even more significant government support for the design, development and deployment of renewable energy sources.

Reichert is an executive vice president at the Pew Charitable Trusts and directs its environmental work.