Investing in America’s next energy boom

While few outside the industry realize it, the energy boom America enjoys today would not be nearly as robust without substantial investments in energy research and development made by presidents and members of Congress of both parties over the past four decades. These basic science and technology advances, together with private sector innovations and commercialization, helped spawn dozens of technologies, fundamentally transforming America’s oil and gas production, renewable energy, energy efficiency and much else.

Horizontal drilling and advanced seismology, catalyzed by industry visionaries like George Mitchell using government R&D breakthroughs, helped make the shale oil and gas bonanza possible, precipitating the current drop in global oil prices among other economic benefits. Aeroderivative natural gas turbines, which came from military R&D investments in jet engines, have enabled electric utilities to utilize new natural gas supplies more efficiently to increase system reliability and lower costs.

Super-efficient diesel engines, developed by industry in conjunction with our National Laboratories, have enabled a doubling of truck fuel efficiency. High-capacity batteries, with today’s continued federal R&D investments, are driving electric vehicle innovation—with 125,000 electric vehicles manufactured in the US in 2014.  Photovoltaic solar technology, first invented by American companies and propelled by NASA, has helped cut costs dramatically, making solar a competitive option in many parts of the country.

And yet, in recent years, many policymakers seem to have forgotten what was behind these successes.  Since 2010, real investments in federal government energy R&D have been flat, and actually declined adjusted for inflation.  We have in essence been eating the seed corn of decades past. 

And because economic benefits of new discoveries in the energy sector are spread across our entire society rather than accruing to individual companies, the private sector has little economic incentive to invest in this kind of basic energy technology research. For energy companies, many long-term R&D investments are simply too risky and cannot be justified to shareholders.  That is precisely why federal funding is so critical. 

Even amid a surge in domestic production, our energy challenges are more important today than ever: despite recent price drops, affordable energy is still out of reach for many households and businesses; oil and gas development requires renewed focus on sustainability; the electric grid is at risk from physical and cyber-attacks while facing greater challenges integrating new renewable sources; energy price volatility continues; energy remains a global political weapon; and issues of climate change and competition for resources from emerging countries become more threatening with each passing day.

Fortunately, our opportunities are just as great—if we invest in them.  We can transform the energy landscape once again by creating breakthrough technologies that alter problematic cost, emissions, and geopolitical dynamics. From developing large-scale electricity storage to breakthroughs in materials science and efficiency, from next-generation biofuels to low-cost distributed power, to advances in emissions management, renewable energy and nuclear power, we can once again revolutionize the world’s energy systems.  And American economic competitiveness is at stake; other nations, especially developing nations like China, are making investments to rival or surpass ours in many energy technologies.

This is why we have joined other business and technology leaders — including John Doerr, partner at Kleiner Perkins; Bill Gates, co-chair of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation; Jeffrey Immelt, chief executive of GE; and Tom Linebarger, chairman and CEO of Cummins – in releasing a new report from our group, the American Energy Innovation Council.  Our bottom line is this:  America is not fulfilling our energy, economic or environmental potential due to a chronic lack of federal energy R&D funding.  We must make much greater investments—at least double or triple current levels—in energy technology breakthroughs now to capture our remarkable economic promise and deal with pressing geopolitical challenges. 

At the same time, we must reform programs at the Department of Energy and elsewhere, to make each dollar have maximum effectiveness.  In particular, we urge that the Advanced Research Project Agency-Energy (or ARPA-E), which is leading R&D funding reforms, be granted substantially increased financial resources. 

We are eager to work closely with the new Congress and with the president to find ways to bring about these critical investments as part of broader energy and infrastructure legislation.  And, yes, we believe presidential hopefuls of both parties need to step up to articulate a compelling vision for America’s energy technology future. 

Historically, energy innovation has rarely become highly politicized because Republicans, Democrats and independents share a common interest in scientific breakthroughs and technological progress that improve people’s lives.  America has succeeded because it has created new possibilities for the future, not simply adapted to the status quo.  We must preserve that uniquely American tradition and our nation’s competitive advantage by investing, again, in energy innovation.

Augustine is retired chairman and CEO of Lockheed Martin.  Holliday is former chairman and CEO of DuPont.


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