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Promoting Partnerships for Innovation in Energy

Howard W. Buffett, Policy Advisor in the Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation summarizes the outcomes from the Energy Innovation Conference hosted last week at the White House.

It is President Barack Obama’s priority to find new ways for this administration to partner across government and across sectors in addressing our nation’s greatest challenges. Given the nature of the problems we face, the ability of government to forge effective relationships with organizations of all types will be critical in making progress on the President’s agenda –particularly in areas like energy innovation.

Last Friday, the Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation co-convened a conference on Energy Innovation that included participation by five White House offices, four federal departments, three federal agencies, entrepreneurs, state government officials, academia, private sector leaders, nonprofits and innovators.  Through this convening, we sought to embrace these actors as our partners in three areas: advancement of shared policy objectives, enhancement of visibility around these issues, and the coordination of resources so as to improve the government’s ability to fulfill specific objectives of the Administration.

Throughout the day-long conference, attendees discussed ideas and mechanisms to help scale-up private sector investment, direct philanthropic support, and increase the efficiency of the government’s role in these areas. Entrepreneurs are already building on the foundation of the Administration’s Recovery Act, which provided over $36 billion of federal funding to stimulate the sector. This unprecedented ongoing investment in areas such as research and development, have created an atmosphere for accelerating innovation and growth to jumpstart a thriving, private market for energy innovation that will put thousands of people back to work.

Participants of the conference discussed that all sectors need to encourage American innovation for American jobs, and that few areas are more ready for innovation than the energy sector. If businesses and entrepreneurs can harness resources and ingenuity available to them, they can become world leaders in clean energy production, and capitalize on this rapidly growing sector. US investment in basic energy research is at its greatest, but attention must also be given to the private market for energy. Energy innovations are capable of receiving additional attention from investors, and limitations such as short-term costs, restricted financing options, and the inability to access current and relevant information, need to be addressed. Attendees agreed that it could be more straightforward to know if and when new technologies can be deployed, which is currently difficult because regulations vary from state to state.

Finally, we discussed the opportunities provided by the diverse set of organizations present, and it was determined that near-term and long-term challenges need to be addressed in a strategic, integrated way. The group recognized that government can create the legal and policy conditions for energy prosperity, can draw on large scale resources, and can utilize its ability to attract attention in order to drive market progress. At the meeting, the Department of Energy and the Small Business Administration jointly announced that the Small Business Investment Company program, and the Small Business Technology Transfer program would begin using their existing network of funds to promote small green energy firms, though a new $60 million Business Clean Energy Innovation fund.

Private corporations and venture capital firms at the meeting offered to play a productive and sustaining role in tactically addressing structural and institutional challenges that inhibit the long-term success of proven models. In terms of providing support to early-stage energy companies, these groups can bring their business acumen to the table, and their access to a large group of peer organizations, to achieve some the goals that were discussed – including the creation of an energy innovation network for entrepreneurs.

Participating philanthropic foundations, such as the Kauffman Foundation and the Nebraska Community Foundation, expressed their experience thinking strategically about effective ways of working with multiple stakeholders to address these conditions both nationally, and locally. These groups indicated that they have the flexibility to develop new ideas and can use their on-the-ground experience and relationships to identify the local problems, as well as the interventions that will make a true difference.

In concluding Friday’s conference, it was announced that a series of regional follow-on meetings would take place, beginning in Omaha, Nebraska on June 16, 2010, to continue the dialogue with a diverse set of actors in communities across the nation over the next few months.

Howard W. Buffett is a Policy Advisor in the Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation.