Congress kicks bipartisan energy innovation into higher gear
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The historic significance of energy innovation to the welfare of average Americans and to U.S. economic strength is often overlooked. In the 20th century, urban and rural electrification unleashed America’s industrial powerhouse, lifting many millions into the middle class. Conversely, oil price shocks in the 1970s sent America into a deep recession, an important reminder of energy’s strategic significance.

In the last two decades, American innovations in shale oil and gas extraction, energy efficiency, and renewable energy have again produced huge economic benefits, reducing the costs of consumer electricity and manufacturing, and enhancing our national energy security while cutting carbon dioxide emissions.

There is now widespread recognition that expanding U.S. clean energy production will involve more deployment of the existing zero- and low-carbon sources available today, including wind and solar, the current generation of nuclear power plants and hydropower, lower emitting vehicles, and many others.

But increasingly, Democrats and Republicans in Congress alike are recognizing that even greater American energy technology innovation will be needed. Such innovation is in our strategic national interest as it will enable the transition to a low carbon economy, maintain America’s leadership position in the geopolitical domain and also holds the promise of a large export markets for U.S. businesses as we support decarbonization across the world.

Last Thursday, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources held a hearing dedicated to entirely to energy innovation, one of a dozen on the topic this year. The previous week, Senate Energy approved 22 innovation-related measures, led by bills on advanced nuclear power, energy efficiency, and “rare earth” minerals sponsored by Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairwoman Lisa MurkowskiLisa Ann MurkowskiOvernight Defense — Presented by Boeing — Pence says Turkey agrees to ceasefire | Senators vow to move forward with Turkey sanctions | Mulvaney walks back comments tying Ukraine aid to 2016 probe On The Money: Senate fails to override Trump veto over border emergency | Trump resort to host G-7 next year | Senators to push Turkey sanctions despite ceasefire | McConnell tees up funding votes Senate fails to override Trump veto over emergency declaration MORE (R-Alaska). Energy and Natural Resources Committee Ranking Member Joe ManchinJoseph (Joe) ManchinOvernight Energy: Perry to step down as Energy secretary | Future of big-game hunting council up in the air | Dems lose vote against EPA power plant rule Senate Dems lose forced vote against EPA power plant rule Schumer seeks focus on health care amid impeachment fever MORE (D-W.Va.) also sponsored key bills approved by the committee, including legislation to improve carbon capture, removal and utilization technology innovation and on new techniques to extract rare earth minerals. Other bipartisan bills approved by the committee included legislation to increase hydroelectric efficiency improvement incentives; a bill to develop innovative vehicle technologies approved; and legislation to identify security vulnerabilities in the energy sector. 

Earlier this month, the House Energy and Commerce Committee approved 10 bills to increase energy efficiency funding, infrastructure security and clean energy workforce training, a number with bipartisan sponsorship.

And the House Science Committee also moved energy innovation legislation. The committee approved technology innovation legislation that reauthorizes and expands research, development, and demonstration of carbon capture, removal and utilization technologies for power plants and industrial sources, as well as measures to further improve the efficiency and reliability of wind and solar energy.

The diversity of these bills and other pending legislation is encouraging. Its includes ways to make fossil energy cleaner like carbon capture, utilization and storage, carbon removal technologies, catalyze major leaps in mainstay clean electricity technologies from advanced nuclear to hydropower to new generation wind and solar, technologies to sharply cut vehicle emissions including more efficient electric and hydrogen vehicles, potentially game-changing electricity storage and grid advances, and technologies like direct air capture that can remove carbon dioxide from ambient air.

These developments are crucial. After more than a decade since major energy legislation has passed in Congress, this emerging bipartisan momentum on a broad energy innovation framework is encouraging for what it also suggests for the opportunity to pursue a more ambitious clean energy and climate agenda going forward. Because more is needed.

The American Energy Innovation Council, a group of 12 leading CEOs affiliated with the Bipartisan Policy Center, has been advocating for increased federal energy innovation investments for over a decade, noting that innovation pathways require resources and other institutional support for basic science, project demonstrations, and commercial deployment.

A robust energy innovation ecosystem demands a strong push on technology development and also requires ambitious programs to drive the markets for deployment. Such effort has huge payoffs, however, as innovation has a long history of remarkably high returns on investment for both taxpayers and businesses. The emerging bipartisan energy innovation framework in the Congress is a welcome step toward this broader goal.

Of course, disagreements over how rapidly the U.S. energy economy must decarbonize exist between the parties, and notably within them. But these differences should not obscure a new spirit of bipartisan agreement on the need for a robust U.S. energy innovation and technology agenda that can massively expand America’s clean energy technology toolbox.

Innovation is at the heart of America’s energy competitive advantage. Members of Congress from both parties are now stepping up to offer an unprecedented range of legislative incentives to put America ahead of the energy innovation game globally. We must capitalize on these developments to provide the greatest benefit to America’s economy, workers, industry, environment and consumers.

Sasha Mackler is Director of the Energy Project at the Bipartisan Policy Center.