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Advancing the Frontiers of Clean Energy Innovation

America must continue to push the boundaries of clean energy innovation by doubling down on Federally-funded research and accelerating new technologies.

Note: This post was last updated at 11:30 AM ET on October 13, 2016.

Today, President Obama is hosting the White House Frontiers Conference in Pittsburgh to imagine our Nation and the world in 50 years and beyond, with America continuing to push the boundaries of science, technology, and innovation.

This kind of American leadership is essential in meeting the global challenge of climate change. 

Just last week, the world crossed the threshold needed to bring the historic Paris Agreement into force, committing more than 190 countries to set the world on a course to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.  In the President’s words, “by sending a signal that this is going to be our future—a clean energy future—[this agreement] opens up the floodgates for businesses, and scientists, and engineers to unleash high-tech, low-carbon investment and innovation at a scale that we’ve never seen before.”

Indeed, the United States is well on its way to achieving its near-term Paris Agreement commitments, thanks in part to past public investments in technologies that are now being deployed at scale.  The pace of change is breathtaking:  Wind and solar provided two-thirds of all new electricity generation capacity last year, with more than a million solar systems now on rooftops across the country; nearly half a million electric vehicles are on the road, with battery costs falling 73 percent since President Obama took office; and energy-efficient LED bulb costs plummeted 94 percent over the same period, with sales more than doubling last year alone.

To achieve a clean, thriving, low-carbon economy over the next 50 years, we need to double down on investments in the next generation of clean energy technologies.  That’s why President Obama joined with other world leaders last year to launch Mission Innovation, a commitment by more than 20 countries to double their public funding of clean energy research and development (R&D) over the next five years, to nearly $30 billion per year by 2021

The United States is by far the world’s largest funder of clean energy R&D, and the President’s FY2017 Budget proposes to double this funding over the next five years, from $6.4 billion government-wide in Fiscal Year (FY) 2016 to $12.8 billion in FY 2021.  Today, the Office of Management and Budget is releasing an updated summary of the FY 2017 plan for Mission Innovation, which lays out how the investments would be used.  And in the weeks ahead, we will publish a framework for how these public investments can continue to advance the frontiers of clean energy innovation.

Of course, capturing all of the economic and national security benefits of clean energy innovation isn’t just a matter of how much we invest—it’s how effectively we invest.  That’s why the Department of Energy (DOE) continues to pursue path-breaking new models for rapidly moving R&D out of the lab and into the marketplace.  Here are just a few examples from the past few months:

Funding High-Impact Research

The Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) was established at the beginning of the Obama Administration with the mission to advance potentially transformational energy technologies that are too early in their development to attract private-sector investment.  Since 2009, ARPA-E has funded more than 500 projects that have gone on to secure more than $1.25 billion in cumulative follow-on funding from the private sector.  A recent report on successful project outcomes includes promising technologies to dramatically reduce battery costs, improve the resiliency of the electric grid, boost renewable power, and more.

At the same time, many other DOE programs continue to invest in the basic and applied research essential to solving the 21st century grand challenges of clean energy, including generating fuels from sunlight, making electric vehicles as affordable and convenient as gas-powered vehicles, harnessing energy from ocean waves, and making solar energy cost-competitive nationwide by the end of this decade.

Harnessing the National Labs

As described in today's new Technology Transfer Execution Plan, DOE is engaged in an unprecedented range of activities to maximize the economic impact of its 17 National Laboratories, which are home to many of the world’s fastest supercomputers, most sophisticated scientific instruments, and most talented researchers. For instance, DOE’s:

Growing the Nation’s Clean Energy Innovation Ecosystem

The National Labs are a critical part of our energy innovation ecosystem, and DOE also supports complementary efforts to build a robust commercialization pathway for new clean energy technologies. We need a new generation of talented entrepreneurs pushing the boundaries of clean energy innovation, and new support mechanisms to help them get nascent technologies to market.  That’s why DOE continues to invest in the entire ecosystem of clean energy entrepreneurship across the country.

  • The Cleantech University Prize (Cleantech UP) enables some of the nation’s top students across the country to compete in regional and national clean energy business plan competitions, so far training nearly 400 teams that have gone on to launch more than 70 ventures and generate more than $60 million in follow-on funding.
  • Build4Scale was just launched to provide clean energy entrepreneurs with training on the fundamentals of manufacturing, which are essential to successfully making the leap from lab project to commercial product.
  • The National Incubator Initiative for Clean Energy supports a consortium of clean energy focused startup incubators across the country that have collectively supported more than 350 companies and helped catalyze over $1 billion in follow-on funding.

Taken together, these investments in R&D, lab impact, and entrepreneurial talent will increase the number of cutting-edge clean energy technologies ready for follow-on investment from the private sector.  Through the Administration’s Clean Energy Investment Initiative, a range of foundations, institutional investors, and other long-term investors have committed more than $4 billion to bring such technologies to market.

Tune in to today’s Frontiers Conference to be inspired by the many ways that American innovation will continue to push the boundaries of what’s possible in the century ahead.

Ali Zaidi is the Associate Director for Natural Resources, Energy, and Science at the White  House Office of Management and Budget.

Lynn Orr is the Under Secretary for Science and Energy at the U.S. Department of Energy.