While few outside the industry realize it, the energy boom America enjoys today would not be nearly as robust without substantial investments in energy research and development made by presidents and members of Congress of both parties over the past four decades. These basic science and technology advances, together with private sector innovations and commercialization, helped spawn dozens of technologies, fundamentally transforming America’s oil and gas production, renewable energy, energy efficiency and much else.
Horizontal drilling and advanced seismology, catalyzed by industry visionaries like George Mitchell using government R&D breakthroughs, helped make the shale oil and gas bonanza possible, precipitating the current drop in global oil prices among other economic benefits. Aeroderivative natural gas turbines, which came from military R&D investments in jet engines, have enabled electric utilities to utilize new natural gas supplies more efficiently to increase system reliability and lower costs.
Super-efficient diesel engines, developed by industry in conjunction with our National Laboratories, have enabled a doubling of truck fuel efficiency. High-capacity batteries, with today’s continued federal R&D investments, are driving electric vehicle innovation—with 125,000 electric vehicles manufactured in the US in 2014. Photovoltaic solar technology, first invented by American companies and propelled by NASA, has helped cut costs dramatically, making solar a competitive option in many parts of the country.
And yet, in recent years, many policymakers seem to have forgotten what was behind these successes. Since 2010, real investments in federal government energy R&D have been flat, and actually declined adjusted for inflation. We have in essence been eating the seed corn of decades past.