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More Momentum for Clean Energy

You may remember hearing about a big conference in Paris last fall where world leaders came together to make some commitments on climate and energy. I was honored to join 20 of them to announce Mission Innovation and the Breakthrough Energy Coalition—two related efforts to develop new energy sources that are reliable and affordable and do not emit greenhouse gases. 

Paris was an amazing moment, but it was just the start. We knew that the hard work would come in the months after the announcement. That work won’t generate as many headlines as a big event at a global conference in one of the world’s most beautiful cities, but it is just as important if not more so. I want to tell you about what has happened since Paris, because we are making real headway.

This week, energy ministers from around the world are meeting in San Francisco to make some decisions about how Mission Innovation will move forward. Many will announce specific plans to double their R&D budgets. They will also talk about how to coordinate their research and avoid duplicating efforts (so two countries don’t focus on, say, solar fuels if only one needs to).

In the United States, we are making progress on two fronts. One has to do with the federal budget. This year the funding for key research programs at the Department of Energy went up by nearly $300 million—the first significant increase in almost four decades. We are on a path to another increase next year too. That is great to see, because more research will ultimately lead to more clean-energy solutions reaching the market. 

We’re also seeing progress on the political front. In addition to the President’s leadership, a bipartisan group of leaders in both the Senate and House of Representatives has acknowledged that smart, limited investments in R&D build a foundation for innovation, and they have committed to keep increasing R&D funding. So far a lot of that support has come in the form of procedural votes, but it is fantastic that both sides agree that we need investments in energy innovation—that it creates good jobs at home and strengthens America’s leadership around the world.

In addition to these government efforts, I continue to work with my fellow members of the Breakthrough Energy Coalition. Our goal is to support companies that can take the inventions coming out of the government-funded R&D pipeline and turn them into large-scale clean-energy solutions. Some of the coalition’s members will participate in a private investment fund we are creating. Others will do it on their own.

We will take a number of steps to speed up the cycle of innovation. For example, the fund will hire a staff that is expert not only in investing, but also in the science of clean energy. This area is a big technical challenge, and investment decisions need to be informed by the underlying science. Second, the coalition is bringing together people who have proven they can build successful companies in very different environments. So in addition to our funding, the investors in the fund will bring business experience and networks built up over decades to help the companies we invest in succeed. Third, we will make the most of unique partnerships. The University of California system is a great example of this. In addition to investing part of its endowment and pension in the fund we’re creating, the UC system will use its ecosystem of labs, universities, and incubators to develop ideas and help identify possible investments. The UC system also uses a lot of energy (though impressively less every year) and will be an important demonstration partner for the companies we invest in. 

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we have the Mission Innovation network along with us.  They have a renewed commitment not only to fund more energy R&D but to do it better, with even more emphasis on creating an environment for technologies to transfer to the private sector.

This momentum comes as the world is deploying clean energy solutions at a historic pace. Some people argue that deploying today’s technology and developing new ideas are competitors in a zero-sum game—that doing one means you can’t do the other. I disagree.  Successful industries that are built on innovation rely on both deploying the technology they have and developing the technology they need.

The International Energy Agency projects that the world will get twice as much of its energy from clean sources in 2020 as it did in 2012. That’s an exciting prospect and we need to work toward it while making the next generation of carbon-free power even more efficient, affordable, and reliable. That effort may take 15 or 20 years, which is why we need to start now, even as we take advantage of today’s technology. Think about the days when dial-up Internet service seemed like a miracle. We did what we could to make sure as many people as possible benefited from it—but we also kept pushing for broadband access. Both were important. So it’s great that at the San Francisco meeting I mentioned earlier, deployment of existing technologies will be on the agenda alongside breakthrough innovation.

Based on all the progress I see, I am still optimistic that we can build the energy technologies that will lift people out of poverty and stop climate change.

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