Tackling Tough Decarbonization

In “An Innovation Agenda for Hard-to-Decarbonize Energy Sectors” (Issues, Fall 2019), Colin Cunliff outlines the toughest technical problems that will be faced in the transition to net zero emissions. I fear, however, that the US Department of Energy in its current form would struggle to overcome these problems, even with increased funding for research, development, and demonstration (RD&D).

My first concern relates to the applied technology offices of DOE, such as the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy and the Office of Nuclear Energy. Cunliff recommends six particular areas for expanding public RD&D investments, some of which fit reasonably well into these existing applied offices. Other areas could be tackled as cross-cutting initiatives involving multiple offices.

Sending all the new funding for these activities to the DOE applied technology offices as they exist today would be the easiest solution, but it would also be a mistake.

The applied offices are oriented toward making incremental progress along established technology pathways. They face pressure to meet specific targets for technology improvement to justify their appropriations, and they are therefore less likely to pursue ideas that are uncertain or high-risk. But we should not limit our thinking to established technology pathways in these crucial areas. For example, there are several possibilities for long-duration grid energy storage, such as thermal storage, batteries, or hydrogen production, each with multiple competing designs or approaches. When the state of a technology is relatively immature, there is significant uncertainty around which approach will ultimately be most competitive, and overinvestment in a particular approach runs the risk of locking the nation into a higher cost pathway.

Fortunately, DOE already has one solution to this problem: the Advanced Research Projects Agency–Energy (ARPA-E), with its a reputation for risk-taking and a management style that allows it to pursue many approaches in parallel and see what sticks. Congress should recognize the opportunity that ARPA-E provides, as a source of potential breakthrough ideas that can transform the view of the available technology pathways. Any funding boost for the applied offices in these six challenges should come with a commensurate boost for ARPA-E.

Congress should scale up investments in innovation for decarbonization, and it should also use this moment as an opportunity to improve on the status quo funding mechanisms.

My second concern is the basic science function of DOE, which is currently funded through the Office of Science. Cunliff recommends increasing the supply of scientific research that will underpin technology advancement. Unfortunately, the Office of Science is limited in its ability to produce translatable research, due in part to the organizing principle of DOE’s RD&D activities. A sharp separation between so-called basic and applied research has led the Office of Science to avoid connections to technology, lest it be perceived as doing applied research. But the logic of separating these two activities is built on a faulty premise: the linear model of innovation. Major innovations tend to involve collaboration between researchers pursuing fundamental discoveries and those pursuing useful inventions—a kind of collaboration that is impossible if there is a defensive wall around basic research.

The first step toward addressing this problem would be to revive the position of undersecretary of science and energy, so that these RD&D activities can be overseen by a single administrator. A stronger step would be to change how funding is allocated across DOE. If a fraction of the basic research budget were distributed through the technology offices, could those offices seed new lines of research in response to the needs of the technology? If part of the Office of Science budget came from the applied research funding stream, could it use that money to explore potential applications of novel scientific research? These questions are worth considering.

Congress should scale up investments in innovation for decarbonization, and it should also use this moment as an opportunity to improve on the status quo funding mechanisms. Internal reforms to take advantage of the synergy between science and technology could greatly enhance the impact of DOE’s research, development, and demonstration budget.

Senior Research Fellow
University of Massachusetts Amherst

Cite this Article

“Tackling Tough Decarbonization.” Issues in Science and Technology 36, no. 2 (Winter 2020).

Vol. XXXVI, No. 2, Winter 2020