The government is spending far too little money on energy research, putting at risk the long-term goals of reducing carbon emissions and alleviating energy poverty, some of the country’s top business leaders found in a new report.
The American Energy Innovation Council, a group of six executives that includes the Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates and the General Electric chiefJeffrey R. Immelt, urged Congress and the White House to make expanded energy research a strategic national priority.
The leaders pointed out that the United States had fallen behind a slew of other countries in the percentage of economic output being spent on energy research, among them China, Japan, France and South Korea. Their report urged leaders of both political parties to start increasing funds to ultimately triple today’s level of research spending, about $5 billion a year.
“Growing and consistent appropriations for energy innovation should be a top U.S. priority over the next decade,” the business leaders recommended in their report. “The budget numbers over the last five years are a major failure in U.S. energy policy.”
At stake, Mr. Gates said in an interview, are not just long-term goals like reducing emissions of greenhouse gases, but also American leadership in industries of the future, including advanced nuclear reactors and coal-burning power plants that could capture and bury their emissions.
“Our universities, our national labs are the best in the world,” Mr. Gates said, but he added that a chronic funding shortfall was holding back the pace of their work.
The report did credit the Obama administration and Congress with some gains, including a one-time injection of funds in the economic stimulus bill of 2009. But subsequent budgets have essentially dropped back to prior levels, and spending on American energy research remains far below the high point it reached just after the energy crises of the 1970s.
In the past, the report found, investments in energy innovation have paid major dividends. Mr. Gates cited the example of hydraulic fracturing to unlock gas and oil in shale deposits, a technique developed in part with federal research money that has led to a newfound abundance of oil and gas, lowering prices for consumers.
Similar innovation is needed in low-emission sources of energy, the report found, if the goal of limiting global warming is to be met while making energy more available to poor people around the world. Experts involved in writing the report said the needed breakthroughs included safer types of nuclear reactors, cheaper methods of capturing carbon dioxide emissions at power plants and improved batteries that can store large amounts of energy.
The new report is an update on similar recommendations the same business leaders made five years ago. While the report found that the picture remained generally bleak, it did cite some progress.
For instance, Congress established the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, or ARPA-E, modeled on the Pentagon research agency that helped create the Internet. And the Energy Department has funded a string of energy innovation hubs across the country.
“There’s some very promising things that are in these centers, but the pace is absolutely limited by the modest funding level,” Mr. Gates said. “Those should be funded at a much higher level.”