Commerce emphasizes ‘clean energy’ in competitiveness report

Source: Gabriel Nelson • E&E • Posted: Monday, January 9, 2012

The federal government needs to update the U.S. electric grid and direct more money to clean energy research as part of a plan for making the United States more competitive in coming decades, the Commerce Department said in a report today as Secretary John Bryson cautioned policymakers about a “deeply damaging” trend toward short-term thinking.

America’s commitment to education, infrastructure and cutting-edge technology has softened in the past few decades, Bryson said during a meeting of the President’s Council of Advisers on Science and Technology. The federal share of research spending, he said, has fallen by half since the Eisenhower administration.

“As the rest of the world grew more competitive, the U.S. too often allowed itself to coast,” he said. “As a result, those economic building blocks have eroded, and with it, so has our ability to compete economically.

Congress ordered the report when it passed the America COMPETES Reauthorization Act in the waning days of the last session. That bill, signed by President Obama a year ago this week, put $50 billion toward research and education in science, technology, engineering and math, often called the “STEM” disciplines.

Much of the report describes the need to bolster an education system that has seen graduation rates slip behind those of some economic rivals, but even that has implications for energy. Public schools face a $270 billion backlog of needed maintenance and repairs, causing some schools to spend more on electricity and heating than on computers and textbooks, the report says.

Commerce also echoes President Obama in calling to “unleash a clean energy revolution,” saying that those technologies will be central to the U.S. economy throughout this century.

Such a plan could mean additional science funding for the Department of Energy and other energy agencies, which now get about 11 percent of non-defense research and development funding. That makes them the third-largest recipient after NASA and the National Institutes of Health, the latter of which takes up about 49 percent of non-defense spending.

Clean technology firms also stand to benefit from programs bolstering U.S. manufacturing, which took a heavy blow during the economic downturn of the past few years but started to rebound in recent months.

The new report highlights A123 Systems, a maker of rechargeable lithium-ion batteries used in hybrid cars and other electric vehicles, and West Paw Design, a Bozeman, Mont.-based company that makes pet toys and beds from recycled materials, as two companies that have gotten help from a manufacturing assistance program at the National Institute of Standards and Technology.

All these programs face the prospect of budget cuts at a time of austerity on Capitol Hill. The report could signal what might be a central message for President Obama during his State of the Union address later this month and for the lead-up to this fall’s presidential election, separating him from Republican critics who have pushed for further cuts in federal spending.

“I hope this is a first step in the process of Washington waking up to the urgent innovation challenge and giving it the same attention as the budget deficit,” said Rob Atkinson, president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, in a statement today.

Click here to read the report.