Filling the Global Energy Research Gap

Earlier this week, the International Energy Agency released a batch of new findings and reports as its contribution to the Obama administration’s “Clean Energy Ministerial” meeting in Washington. One report concluded that  China’s total energy use now tops that of the United States, just a couple of years behind its rise to the top position on lists of emitters of carbon dioxide. (China  almost immediately disputed the agency’s conclusion.)

In any case, a more important analysis was the agency’s fresh look at trends in government support for research, development and demonstration of low-carbon energy technologies and ways for countries to collaborate to accelerate energy innovation. Here’s one of the centerpiece graphs, showing how the long slide in government support for energy research appeared over, for the moment at least (click on the image to enlarge):

According to the report, “Global Gaps in Clean Energy RD&D,” the recent burst of spending on research as part of various countries’ efforts to stimulate their fragile economies has helped provide a substantial boost after decades of diminishing investment on the frontiers of energy inquiry. But the report’s author, Thomas Kerr, warned that this was a transitory pulse when sustained growth was needed, particularly given signs that no global price on carbon dioxide emissions was likely any time soon. In essence, the report says, the $24 billion in such spending in 2009 needs to be the new floor for such investments, not a temporary peak.

The report describes how India, despite its poverty, has moved ahead with an initiative for raising money for energy research that the United States — thanks to a lack of leadership, congressional polarization and fear of anything remotely resembling a tax — has so far been unable to do: India has created a  National Clean Energy Fund for research and innovation financed by a levy of $1.10 (U.S.) per metric ton of mined or imported coal. It’s a very modest fee that has created hundreds of millions of dollars to stimulate Indian research and testing of promising technologies.

I think that, particularly with presidential leadership, there could be more than 60 Democrats and Republicans in the Senate who could get behind the case for fueling an American energy quest this way, or with a directed  2-cent-per-gallon nudge to the gasoline tax, which alone would triple our research budget compared to the pre-stimulus level.

One interesting facet of the graph above is how much of the stimulus spending has been focused on  carbon capture and sequestration, the process of catching CO2 as it leaves a power plant, compressing it and stashing it in the earth for safekeeping. The only reason for this option to dominate that burst of investment is lobbying power, to my mind. Why have governments only marginally boosted research on efficiency measures and nuclear energy, for example?

Here’s an excerpt and link to the full report:

The IEA’s Energy Technology Perspectives 2008 called for a clean energy revolution to address global energy security, energy access and environmental challenges. The recently released Energy Technology Perspectives 2010 confirms that the transition has begun to a low-carbon economy. The past decade has seen an investment surge in clean energy technologies as governments made bold commitments to fund LCETs.

The 2008-09 green stimulus spending announcements were welcome increases in public RD&D, but is seems they are largely one-time commitments. Further, some governments are backing away from their stimulus spending announcements, and industry is reducing its investments. This is particularly worrisome as clean energy technologies continue to cost more, on an unsubsidized basis, than traditional fossil-based technologies and it is unlikely that a global price on CO2 will be settled in the near future. A great deal more must be done to bridge the gap between the estimated $10 billion in annual pre-stimulus spending and $40 billion to $90 billion needed to achieve sustainable energy goals. Read the rest…

David Sandalow, the assistant secretary of energy for policy and international affairs, discussed the energy ministerial meeting and the Obama administration’s goals for advancing and diffusing low-carbon energy technology on the  White House blog and a new  Department of Energy blog.

By ANDREW C. REVKIN/NYT

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: