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By Matthew Stepp on May 31, 2013 with 3 responses

Making Sense of Government Energy Innovation Policy through Lawn Care

I recently asked a few colleagues over lunch the kind of wonky question that would only be allowed within the borders of the District of Columbia: Aside from more government investment – which is desperately needed – what are the big issues with America’s energy innovation ecosystem?

There’s no simple answer to that question, so we talked about a range of important ideas such as supporting advanced manufacturing, creating technology incubators, and reforming the DOE National Labs system. But what struck me was my colleagues’ insistence that what’s also needed is educating policymakers and advocates on how the energy innovation ecosystem fits together.

During the last five years, the U.S. federal government has added new institutions to spur innovation at different points along the technology development cycle, such as ARPA-E, the Energy Innovation Hubs, and Energy Frontier Research Centers. Analysts like myself argue more is needed. In response, policymakers fear duplication, extra bureaucracy, and inefficiencies often because these requests lack a clear case for how the policy pieces complement rather than repeat or compete with each other. This misunderstanding fuels – along with many other factors – a lack of support for strengthening the ecosystem as a whole.


Describing how these pieces work together can quickly get nuanced, but a metaphor came out of the discussion that merits repeating: think of energy innovation policy as a group of people mowing an Earth-sized, overgrown lawn. In this case, mowing the lawn is the stand-in for developing competitive, high-performance clean energy technologies. It is the problem we’re trying to collectively address and we’re implementing a coordinated set of policy solutions to do so.

(Read More: DOE Proposes Expanding High Impact Energy Innovation Incubator Program)

Programs like the Energy Frontier Research Centers (EFRCs) within the DOE Office of Science are trying to solve fundamental science problems. For mowing the lawn, it is the equivalent of researching why the grass is growing in the first place. If we completely understand why the grass is growing, we can potentially develop better, more efficient solutions for mowing the entire lawn in the future. The EFRCs and Office of Science are studying underlying science problems in chemistry, material science, and physics that could potentially lead to more energy dense batteries, more efficient solar panels, and new low-carbon technologies we haven’t thought of today. We know that understanding the basic science is crucial because the possible outcomes of the work are unknown and unlimited.

The Energy Innovation Hubs are more goal-oriented. The Hubs are collaboratively working with academics, industry, and the National Labs to reach particular technological milestones (not particular technology). This is the equivalent of knowing what type of futuristic lawnmower the world needs to cut the grass, and exploring a multitude of ways to develop it. The Hubs have set audacious technology goals and are conducting crosscutting research that bridges breakthrough science with engineering and industrial application. For example, the Joint Center for Energy Storage Research is taking the last decade’s worth of breakthrough material and chemistry science to develop new battery storage pathways that are five times more energy dense than today’s best lithium-ion battery at one-fifth the cost in five years. We know that developing batteries with such characteristics would be game-changers for emerging industries like electric vehicles. In this case, we understand the technological characteristics necessary to revolutionize clean energy; we just need to figure out how to apply breakthrough science to get there.

ARPA-E is investing in transformative energy technologies by providing small grants on three-year terms to overcome research barriers to piloting potential breakthrough energy technologies. ARPA-E targets investments outside of traditional research pathways. This is the equivalent of going beyond asking how to develop a better lawnmower, to wondering how to develop grass that naturally grows half the length or half as fast so that we don’t need to cut it as much or at all. For clean energy, this has included investing in “electrofuels” – biofuels created by microorganisms and not plant material, like that used to make traditional biofuels. Electrofuels could be ten times more energy efficient than current biofuels at less cost because they do not rely on fertilizers or plant processing, and do not require large areas to grow crops. In this case, we are thinking outside the box and are making small, strategic investments to advance entirely unique and new breakthrough energy technologies.

(Read More: Obama’s Budget Boosts Support for Energy Innovation)

These programs also work synergistically with the rest of the U.S. innovation ecosystem. To give one example, the DOE Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE) invests in, among many other areas, research to develop next-generation lithium-ion batteries rather than next-generation batteries, in general. To extend the lawnmower metaphor one more time, this situation is equivalent to developing a better ride-on lawnmower – we know it works, but in order for it to mow more land faster and at cheaper costs, it requires new blade research, innovative lightweight materials, and advanced fuels.

EERE works on a cohesive set of research issues that could impact energy technology development and deployment in the coming years. For instance, basic science breakthroughs made at EFRCs inform potential research solutions at EERE and vice versa. Energy Innovation Hubs are leveraging research conducted through EERE to reach its technological milestones – in fact, EERE hosts a Hub on Critical Materials.

And for EERE and ARPA-E, the synergy is advancing. The Administration and the DOE have proposed creating technology incubators to invest in “off-pathway” energy technologies not currently pursued inside EERE. For example, if an ARPA-E grantee succeeds in piloting its breakthrough technology, but requires additional research to demonstrate the technology at scale (e.g. take a successfully new battery chemistry and demonstrate it in a working car), an EERE incubator could serve as a potential mechanism for moving it forward. This would be in addition ARPA-E projects potentially gaining follow-on support from large strategic companies, venture capital, and other private investors. Incubators would ensure that breakthrough ideas piloted by ARPA-E investments (or developed by academia or the Labs), could gain research support through the early demonstration stage.

Metaphors like these are a reminder that energy innovation is a non-linear process with many points of contact, public-private partnerships, development goals, and investment pathways. It all works together and there is no single point of investment that spurs breakthrough technologies, energy or otherwise. In fact, an efficient, well-oiled energy innovation ecosystem includes and requires federal support across numerous development and technology pathways, which also support each other. While the U.S. energy innovation ecosystem is grossly underfunded, special policy care is also necessary to ensure that its structure is well connected.

  1. By Lewis J. Perelman on June 4, 2013 at 8:31 pm

    The description of this in your email announcement included: “The only way to ‘mow’ efficiently is by implementing a coordinated set of policy
    solutions that complement rather than contradict each other.”

    I don’t see anything here about the “contradict each other” part. Are you suggesting that more government programs, more bureaucracy, and more tax dollars are always beneficial and never counter-productive?

    In any case, a chink in this argument is that it overlooks that, so to speak, the earth-size lawn extends well beyond the borders of the US, and there are many other people interested in it in different ways, for different reasons. Some think no new mowers are needed. Some prefer letting sheep munch the grass. Some want to just let the grass grow into natural prairie. Others think astroturf is the answer. And so on. Not so clear that “it all works together.”

  2. By Phil on June 10, 2013 at 12:46 pm

    I agree government support for research and development in alternative fuels is sorely needed. Currently the US government spends a fraction of a percentage on researching new technologies, with substantially more spent on incentives to use old technologies to produce alternative fuels (e.g. ethanol, bio-methane).

    The money spent on R&D isn’t necessarily directed to the most advanced laboratories, but rather to the same few universities and labs, and their corporate fossil fuel company sponsors (e.g. BP-Berkeley), The DOE needs to develop a system to critically evaluate proposals and award funding for new ideas rather than just for World-War II era technology. That means we may not be able to build a plant tomorrow.

    You use the Electrofuels program from ARPA-E as an example. This program aims to efficiently produce transportation fuels, like butanol, from carbon dioxide and hydrogen or electricity. They awarded $47 million to different universities mostly dong the same thing, developing microorganisms that could catalyze the conversion of carbon dioxide to fuels. Trouble is someone had already filed a patent on the process and microorganisms several months before the program was even announced (See US Patent 8,178,329). So why are we funding all these other programs to do the same thing? Perhaps they didn’t know about the existing research, perhaps they borrowed the idea, but it probably wasn’t necessary to repeat it.

  3. By Sean Carter on August 2, 2013 at 3:40 pm

    really interesting read, there are a lot of ways we can converse and many places to look for proper care. I know I love my electric yard tools like my leaf mulcher and others just as much as any of those older gas powered tools everyone is always touting. There are many ways that we can change our behavior for the better

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