Inventing the Future: Recapping Our Panel Conversation

By Tomas Green 

Overview

On June 20, 2017, the American Energy Innovation Council (AEIC) hosted an event on Capitol Hill to release their latest report, The Power of Innovation: Inventing the Future. Opening remarks were given by Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and BPC President Jason Grumet. The event moved into a panel discussion moderated by Ben Geman, an energy reporter with Axios. The panel consisted of Rich Powell, Executive Director of ClearPath Foundation; Michael Rosen, Vice President of Corporate Communications and Public Affairs for American Air Liquide; and Steve Wilson, General Manager of Research and Development for Southern Company.   

Remarks from Sen. Lamar Alexander

Alexander opened the event by articulating the importance of energy research and development to maintaining American competitiveness in the global marketplace. Alexander explained the rationale behind a request to the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine to assess the needs of American innovation. Their resulting publication, “Rising Above the Gathering Storm,” released in 2007, served as the foundation of the America COMPETES Act, which authorized the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) and other major science programs at the Department of Energy and the National Science Foundation. Stressing the connection between federal research and the recent revolution in unconventional natural gas production, Alexander pointed to the difficulty of thinking of a major technological advancement since WWII that hasn’t had a part in government research. He highlighted the government’s role in developing 3-D printing and advanced manufacturing technologies, pointing to the potential of each to produce American jobs and while shaping our economy for decades. Alexander emphasized the risk he sees in being outpaced by competitors like China who are increasing their investments in energy innovation at a time when our own investments stagnate.  He publicly stated his support for doubling the current funding for energy research, which he believes is critical to maintaining U.S. competitiveness.   

Alexander pointed to the difficulty of thinking of a major technological advancement since WWII that hasn’t had a part in government research.

Panel Discussion

The panel opened by discussing the importance of federal investments in driving energy research and development. Wilson stressed the value of public-private partnerships, noting that “anything of the scale of energy supply and delivery” requires support from the government. Others noted the dramatic success in innovation as a result of federal research, citing natural gas (spawned from the national labs) and hydrogen fuel cells (a legacy product of the space program) as clear examples. Powell noted that when the government makes a deep commitment to a specific technology and devotes top staff and resources to the project, as was done with the Joint Bioenergy Institute and Sunshot Initiative, we have seen significant success.

The conversation shifted to the cuts proposed to energy innovation in the Trump administration’s budget. The panel stressed that in the energy sector, businesses tend to look at ten to 15-year investment horizons and take great care to ensure that the environment they are investing in is conducive to success. They noted constructive public-private partnerships are critical to that long-term success and that American preeminence is not permanent, particularly if other countries take the lead on energy technology by making necessary investments in research.

The conversation then moved to misconceptions of the energy innovation process. Powell suggested that the broad perception that innovation happens in a garage was wrongly encouraging some to question the need for government investment in research and development. The panelists clarified that while this might be true for software, small-scale research for energy is nearly impossible—it requires large-scale and capital-intensive demonstrations and a healthy dose of risk acceptance. They further noted that venture capital for energy technology is substantially lower than other areas, driven by differences in the scale, time frames and technical risk of energy technologies.

There was strong consensus that sufficiently investing in energy R&D would likely be the difference between maintaining or ceding U.S. leadership in the energy technologies of the future.

The panel acknowledged the challenges surrounding the perception that clean energy research only benefitted the renewables industry. While suggesting the previous administration may have been too focused on a subset of advanced energy technologies, the panel stressed the significant opportunities presented by pursuing an “all of the above” research strategy that focuses on delivering clean, affordable and reliable energy to American consumers while creating good paying jobs that are difficult to outsource.

The conversation concluded with the panelists agreeing that getting a technology beyond the proverbial “valley of death” should be a top priority for government investment. Considering the fierce competition America faces from other countries, there was strong consensus that sufficiently investing in energy R&D would likely be the difference between maintaining or ceding U.S. leadership in the energy technologies of the future.