Combating climate change remains the key driver for U.S. energy research, officials say

Source: Umair Irfan, E&E reporter • Posted: Thursday, February 27, 2014

Though energy security and economic competitiveness are important benefits, officials speaking yesterday at the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy Summit outside Washington, D.C., said slowing climate change is the primary driver for energy research and innovation.”I’ve certainly not shied away from emphasizing the role of climate” in driving policy, said Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz. “The big questions [around legislation], then, are what, how much and when.”

The summit showcased high-risk, high-reward projects that increase biofuel yields, improve batteries in electric cars and reduce fossil fuel use with the goal of taking these technologies to market.

“The reason I came to ARPA-E was because of the development and deployment of early-stage energy technologies,” said the agency’s acting director, Cheryl Martin. “The question is always, if this works, will it matter?”

It’s a mission with broad bipartisan support, but it has also faced threats of sweeping cuts, and DOE itself recently endured criticism for its approach to bringing technology to fruition.

The Office of the Inspector General issued a report last week faulting the Energy Department for failing to get enough of its research commercialized (Greenwire, Feb. 20).

Last year, ARPA-E dodged a 70 percent budget cut under a House proposal and weathered attempts to link it to high-profile flameouts in DOE’s loan guarantee program.

Hope for bipartisan energy efficiency moves

However, of the 362 projects financed by the agency so far, 18 lost support for failing to meet objectives, though Martin acknowledged that several more projects changed focus and redefined objectives after running into problems.

“Failure is the down payment to success in the research world,” said Rep. Paul Tonko (D-N.Y.), adding that reframing the issues of energy security and climate change is necessary to advance policy on this front.

“This is about making the environment safer for our children,” Tonko said. “If we put [climate change] into the context of children, the next generation, our families, we can perhaps move that political meter a bit to get things done.”

Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) said that even though carbon regulations under the Clean Air Act are meeting stiff opposition, energy efficiency and research legislation might still stand a chance of passing a divided Congress.

He said he expects an energy efficiency bill sponsored by Sens. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) and Rob Portman (R-Ohio) to hit the floor of the Senate in a couple of weeks.

“If it succeeds, that is a modest but important sign that we are able to legislate in some real way around balanced bipartisan solutions,” Coons said. “It’s one of the easiest issues, energy efficiency, which doesn’t implicate some of the broader challenges around climate change, around financing, but is an important small step.”

Coons also expressed optimism for the “America INNOVATES Act,” a bill he co-sponsored with Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.). The initiative is aimed at restructuring national laboratories to better manage and commercialize research.

“We must be careful not to lose the technological advantage we’ve gained through government-sponsored research and development,” said Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) in a video statement, adding that Congress should double research funding.