Capturing global energy leadership

As the ranking member of the Science, Space and Technology Committee, I have the privilege of hearing first-hand about the incredible cutting-edge work that the federal government supports, from advances in nanotechnology to exploring the frontiers of outer space. Of all the amazing things we can do, the thing we most need to do right now is create a stronger, more competitive economy built on clean and sustainable resources and advanced technologies by tapping into America’s unmatched capacity for innovation. 

We have an opportunity to capitalize on a massive global market for clean-energy technologies. According to research done by the Pew Charitable Trusts, between now and 2018, annual revenue from clean-energy installations will grow by 8 percent globally, and 14 percent in the U.S., and this will amount to almost $2 trillion in cumulative revenues over that timeframe. And, according to a United Nations panel, the effort to create a cleaner, more environmentally sustainable economy could create between 15 million to 60 million jobs worldwide over the next two decades. That is real wealth and real jobs that should be created here in the U.S. 

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Washington must get beyond the stale debates about picking energy winners and losers. It is a waste of time to argue over the rules of a game that our competitors are not even playing. They recognize the opportunities and promise in clean-energy technologies, and are willing to go to far greater lengths to give their own, often state-supported, industries advantages in the global energy marketplace. Meanwhile, the U.S. risks starving our innovation pipeline by short-funding our R&D enterprise and politicizing certain technology areas because they might someday compete with incumbent industries. We can’t afford to be that short-sighted. 

Unfortunately, while our competitors are surging ahead with investments in clean-energy technologies, we in the U.S. are preparing to deal with the impacts of ill-advised cuts due to the sequester that went into effect last Friday. We have to do better than this. I urge all parties involved to take action to avert the awful consequences that are sure to follow these cuts to critical investments in R&D and innovation.

By most metrics, we are still the most innovative country in the world. To leverage our hard-won advantages in emerging energy technologies, we first have to acknowledge that we need a more level playing field and take into account the range of market barriers that energy technologies face. Conventional energy sectors like nuclear, coal, oil and gas have been given preferential treatment for decades with government-backed research, subsidies, defense spending and infrastructure expansion. For instance, the current boom in natural gas is a product of a public-private R&D partnership funded through the Department of Energy (DOE). These conventional resources power our economy today, but the one thing we know is that they will not last forever, and relying on them often exposes us to unacceptable economic volatility, and environmental and security risks. Now is the time to give emerging clean- and advanced-energy technologies a fair shake, and provide them with the same or similar treatment that incumbent sectors have had for, in some cases, more than a century. 

There is a diversity of roles the federal government can play in the energy innovation space. Our DOE National Laboratory system, as well as the university researchers DOE supports, is simply unmatched in the world of basic and applied research and technology development. Federal programs can likewise serve as conveners to give innovators, investors and companies a space to collaborate; as a first-adopter when the initial costs are high; and as a compiler of data where no incentive to do so yet exists in the market. Finally, programs such as the Advanced Research Projects Agency – Energy (ARPA-E) and the Energy Innovation Hubs show us that government programs can be innovative not only in the research activities they support, but also in how they do business. 

By constantly reevaluating and, where necessary, reinventing the role of government in the clean-energy space, we can assure leadership in the global market and be confident that we’re getting the most bang for the taxpayer’s dollar. To do so, we must be willing to take risks, commit to long-term, consistent policies, make the investments that encourage innovation and new competition and agree that bureaucracy and partisanship have no place in this effort. If we do these things, we will pass on a cleaner environment and stronger economy to our children and grandchildren.

Johnson is the ranking Democrat on the House Science, Space and Technology Committee.