As I read an article in The Hill about the House Republican Energy framework, I was watching pitches from budding entrepreneurs at the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) Innovation Summit that took place Feb. 9 to 11. ARPA-E focuses on high-risk investments that are not yet ready for private-sector investment, providing a road map for future investment. The following sentence in the House Republican Energy framework struck me as particularly relevant to the ARPA-E Summit:
The committee supports solutions that harness new technologies and private sector innovation for more efficient energy usage in households, businesses, and the federal government.
This, to me, is one of the most important goals that the country can have — harnessing new technologies and focusing on the challenge of energy efficiency. I believe there is bipartisan agreement on this goal; however, the House Republican energy leadership needs to think more innovatively as it takes the next steps on its framework — specifically focusing on providing additional support for bringing energy innovation to the marketplace and while acting nationally, recognizing that it needs to do so in partnership with regions, states and local communities to build their innovation ecosystems.
The pitch I was watching at the time was that of Avideh Zakhor, an ARPA-E awardee from University of California, Berkeley, which provides fast, automated energy audits of commercial and industrial buildings using a human wearable backpack. This technology would replace someone walking around a building identifying ways to make it more energy efficient with just a simple clipboard checklist producing a faster, less expensive and more accurate analysis.
As someone who conducted those energy audits with the aforementioned clipboard as an engineering intern, I could immediately see the potential of such a device. During a very hot summer in Southern California, I walked through industrial facilities identifying ways to reduce their energy consumption for the Southern California Gas company. The goal then was to encourage facilities to reduce their energy consumption to reduce the need to build new power plants. Certainly, an important goal even today, given the degree of investment required for such facilities — not to mention the challenges involved in locating such facilities.
Zakhor received some solid advice from a "Shark Tank"-type panel of potential investors, who told her that this was a crowded space — that is, lots of other researchers are working on developing technologies to enhance energy efficiency in buildings and the importance of keeping up with the latest developments. Another suggestion from one of the potential investors was possibly using a robot to conduct the analysis instead of a human roaming the building.
This is just one of many energy efficiency innovations developed at universities and other institutions throughout the country that can provide the next generation of energy technologies to improve the nation's energy efficiency.
At Carnegie Mellon University, my home institution, we have our own set of energy innovations to reduce energy consumption, including furniture that can absorb heat during the day and then release it at night, and software solutions that provide energy efficiency guidance to building managers, workers at their desktop and consumers at their homes based not on general information but actual, real-world data.
And as I discussed in a previous column, social science research also plays an important role — it is not just enough to develop a technology; we need to better understand human behavior for these technologies to reach their potential. Anyone who has children knows that although we might have a light switch, a technology whose use can immediately reduce energy consumption, we still need some way to encourage that child to use that light switch. So at Carnegie Mellon, we have psychologists on our research staff to help us better understand this human component.
These innovations, however, also need help to make the transition from these institutions to the marketplace — to cross what is known as the "valley of death." The support provided by ARPA-E helps that occur through its Technology-to-Market program that provides researchers with the tools needed to take the next step, such as the program in which Zakhor participated.
ARPA-E is not the only agency that has been helping researchers get their products to the market. In conjunction with the ARPA-E Energy Innovation Summit, the White House announced partnerships through a Clean Energy Investment Fund to catalyze energy efficiency and other energy innovations into the marketplace — helping them cross the valley of death. And the National Science Foundation's I-Corps program also helps researchers connect their innovations with the marketplace. A very important part of the I-Corps program is its I-Corps Sites program that focuses not only on the national innovation ecosystem, but on infrastructure, resources and networking opportunities that develop local innovation ecosystems.
Regional, state and local partnerships
This brings up another key point. The Republican House Energy framework focuses on national energy policy, stating, for example, that "Our energy landscape has changed, but our national energy policy has not kept pace." As I indicated in a previous column for The Hill, however, we need to "Think nationally, act regionally."
Although it is true that our energy landscape has changed, particularly due to presence of shale gas and an electricity mix increasingly reliant on natural gas and renewables, I'm not sure that we can also say that our national energy policy has not kept pace. That is, if you think of national policy being more than federal policy.
Innovative actions are taking place at the regional, state and local levels, with each responding to varying public societal and economic goals and perceptions of risk. These activities and perceptions need to be taken into consideration, and national policy needs to be financially supportive of these innovative efforts. The Republican House Energy framework does mention these policymakers, but only in a directive tone: "Policymakers and regulators at the federal, state, and local level need to ensure that through these new realities, families and businesses in every corner of the country have continued access to safe, reliable, and affordable electricity." Rather than directions to state and local governments, perhaps Congress can instead view state and local governments as partners in achieving our national energy goals.
While we tend to think about other policy arenas like health and education policy from a local perspective, this is less the case for energy policy. Yet each region has a different energy mix and related opportunities and challenges. As illustrated in this video, what is a wise decision for one region may not be appropriate for another. Just as with these other policy arenas, each region, state and community should make its own decisions regarding energy policy.
As the Republican House Energy committee continues development of its energy framework, I urge the committee to support:
- Increased investment in energy innovation and tech-to-market educational and support activities that help those innovations reach the marketplace;
- Development of regional, state and local industry, government, environmental and community partnerships that establish best practices and regionally focused energy research and policies; and
- White House efforts to catalyze $2 billion of expanded private-sector investment through its Clean Energy Investment Initiative.