Blue-Ribbon Presidential Panel Lays Out Energy Playbook

The President's blue-ribbon panel on accelerating change in energy technology put out its big report today. At first glance, the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology plan looks solid, if unsurprising. That makes sense, though, because the basics of an energy technology program are simple: put more money into all phases of energy innovation and provide that money over longer time periods, so ideas have a chance to work.

The Council wants to increase research, development, demonstration, and deployment funding to $16 billion a year, authorized on a 4-year cycle to promote longer term investments. This "Quadrennial Energy Review" (QER) could "establish government-wide goals, coordinate actions across agencies, and identify the resources needed for the invention, translation, adoption, and diffusion of energy technologies."

Here's the nut from the executive summary (emphasis is original):

A complete and integrated QER will take longer to mature. While a good start should be made in 2011, the full government­-wide QER should be targeted for delivery in early 2015. PCAST encourages Congress to use the QER as a basis for a 4­-year authorization process that guides annual appropriations. The Federal investment in energy research, development, demonstration, and deployment (RDD&D) is incommensurate with the objective of leadership in energy technology innovation. We recommend a substantial increase - to $16 billion per year - in Federal support for energy RDD&D. Given the difficulty of increasing appropriated funds to this level and the importance of "front­loading" the required investment to jump start innovation, we recommend an alternative approach. The President should engage the private sector and Congress so as to generate about $10 billion per year of additional RDD&D funding through new revenue streams. This increase will provide the U.S. with the potential to leapfrog to development and deployment of the advanced energy technologies that will define a robust 21st century energy system.

Literally dozens of reports like this have been made to presidents stretching all the way back to Harry Truman's Materials Policy Commission. That commission's report, titled "Resources for Freedom," called on the government to support research into solar energy.

"It is time for aggressive research in the whole field of solar energy -- an effort in which the United States could make an immense contribution to the welfare of the free world," the report's authors wrote.

That was 1952. Nixon got reports from energy specialists. Johnson got reports from energy specialists. Kennedy got reports from energy specialists. Carter, of course, got reports from energy specialists. Basically all of them said, "Need more R&D." Many of them said solar energy, specifically, needed more R&D.

Yet here we are nearly 60 years later and government support for solar energy has been low, inconsistent, and dominated by funding for other technologies. Beyond a short bout of nuclear frenzy, government funding for all energy research outside of gas-price-induced crisis periods has been nearly nonexistent.

There are two kinds of energy policy in America, it seems. One is formed by people like the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. It's smart, forward-looking, well-researched, and based on the latest available scientific and sociological evidence. It's presented in long reports, which wonks devour and quibble over. Then, there is the West Wing (the show) kind of energy policy. It's deployed in a hurry to solve a particular political crisis. Because it's designed precisely to fix some short-term problem, it fundamentally doesn't make a serious effort to tackle the real, structural problems of how much harder it's gotten to extract oil and the need to decarbonize the energy supply.

So, as sound as this report seems, I can't help but be as pessimistic about major change as long-time energy researcher Vaclav Smil. Foreign Policy recently wrote of him, "Stubbornly clear-eyed about the human race's sorry muck-up of the planet, Smil advocates radical energy conservation as our only hope -- and even that is a distant one."