Six Principles for Energy Innovation
December 6, 2017—Gabe Chan, assistant professor in the Humphrey School's Science, Technology, and Environmental Policy (STEP) area, is co-author of a commentary in the most recent issue of Nature magazine.
Last month, the European Union marked the tenth year of its Strategic Energy Technology Plan. It is one of many policy initiatives worldwide to accelerate innovation in energy technologies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. As the window of opportunity to avert dangerous climate change closes, we urgently need to take stock of these initiatives—what works and why?
Public investments in energy research, development, and demonstration (RD&D) have risen since the low levels of the mid-1990s and early 2000s. In 2016, member countries of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development spent US$16.6 billion on energy RD&D, compared with $10 billion in 2000 (adjusted for purchasing power parity). In October, the United Kingdom set out its Clean Growth Strategy to invest more than £2.5 billion ($3.3 billion) in low-carbon innovation between 2015 and 2021. In 2015, the EU and 22 nations pledged to double their investment in energy RD&D under the Mission Innovation adjunct to the Paris climate agreement. However, the overall goal might be out of reach given the proposed 35% cut in President Donald Trump’s 2018 budget for energy RD&D.
Different nations are pursuing various strategies and creating new types of institution. For example, the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) run by the US Department of Energy (DOE) targets grants at key technologies such as affordable energy storage. The DOE Energy Innovation Hubs form research teams to work on technologies such as nuclear reactor modelling.
The United Kingdom has set up the Energy Technologies Institute (ETI), a public–private partnership to accelerate the development of low-carbon technologies. It also launched the Catapult programme, which aims to build bridges between universities and industry, and sustainability advisory services that are run by bodies such as the Carbon Trust. And China is reforming the Chinese Academy of Sciences and its national labs, as well as creating larger lab facilities.
At the international level, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) Technology Mechanism enables technology development and transfer in developing countries to support the Paris agreement. Since 2013, the World Bank Group has opened seven climate-innovation centres in developing countries such as Kenya. The centres provide seed financing, policy guidance, networking and technical training. The Nairobi centre, for example, advises startups such as Futurepump, which is developing solar-powered water pumps.
Most of these bodies can claim successes. But a comprehensive global assessment of energy innovation programs is needed to learn from collective experience and to establish best practices. As a starting point, we recommend six principles to guide public initiatives for energy innovation.