There’s a lot to like in Post-Partisan Power, a proposal for how the federal government should address the climate and energy crises. The proposal was written by a collaborative partnership that included the American Enterprise Institute, the Brookings Institution and the Breakthrough Institute.

Focusing on energy innovation and providing $25 billion a year to fund the work sounds good. And I like the idea of creating regional energy innovation centers that bring government, academia and industry together.

I see a couple of problems, however, when I read the authors' arguments for overhauling the Department of Energy’s research system.

First, they take issue with the DOE’s focus on basic research: “Currently, most energy research is pursued in settings and through programs divorced from the demands and dynamics of the private sector.”

The DOE does need to improve technology transfer, as the Department itself has acknowledged. And there is a place for coordinating government and private-sector interests in setting research agendas. But the basic science carried out in the national laboratories is a separate and critical part of the overall solution.

Second, the authors also may be overly interested in using the Department of Defense as an engine to drive innovation: “[Department of Energy] research programs need to be aligned with the procurement needs of the DOD.”

The military’s priorities are often inappropriate in a larger context. For example, there’s a research project aimed at turning seawater into jet fuel. There’s no alchemy involved -- it takes a lot more energy than you get back from the fuel. This is fine if your goal is to keep naval aircraft flying, but it’s not going to help reduce carbon emissions from commercial aviation.

Military-related research often ends up benefiting society as a whole -- but I’d be careful about trying to force the process.

My biggest concern isn’t with the plan itself. It’s how the plan is being positioned. I’m skeptical of claims that it does away with the need for a price on carbon emissions. Proponents of the plan argue that it will be more effective than the stalled cap-and-trade legislation at moving us beyond fossil fuels. I’m not a big fan of cap-and-trade, but at least it’s designed to create economic incentives that reduce energy consumption and waste, as well as for developing clean energy.

Whatever the political realities of cap-and-trade (let alone a carbon tax), the most important action we can take on climate change now and in the near future is reducing carbon emissions from the existing energy infrastructure. We need to improve energy efficiency and curb unnecessary consumption. Pushing for energy innovation alone is the equivalent of putting solar panels on an uninsulated building.

Transforming our energy systems will take years, if not decades. The proposal could speed up the process by shortening the innovation pipeline, but it’s still going to take time. We need to remain focused on buying that time.


Eric Smalley is the editor-in-chief of Energy Research News.