A group of 34 U.S. Nobel Laureates is calling on President Obama to urge Congress to include the president's proposed $150 billion Clean Energy Technology Fund in the climate legislation it is considering. The climate bill approved by the House in June falls far short of this goal, they told the president in a letter sent to the White House July 16.
"The stable support this Fund would provide is essential to pay for the research and development needed if the U.S., as well as the developing world, are to achieve their goals in reducing greenhouse gases at an affordable cost," they wrote.
"This stable R&D spending is not a luxury," they added. "[I]t is in fact necessary because rapid scientific and technical progress is crucial to achieving" U.S. goals in energy and climate and making the cost affordable.
The letter notes that the House-passed climate bill, H.R. 2454, "provides less than one fifteenth of the amount" the president proposed "for federal energy research, development, and demonstration programs." The Senate is expected to consider its version of the climate legislation later this month.
The administration has proposed that proceeds from a cap-and-trade system be used to fund a Clean Energy Technology Fund at $15 billion annually for ten years. President Obama mentioned this proposed funding in his April 27 speech to the National Academy of Sciences, and his Fiscal Year 2010 budget states that the fund would support energy R&D and technology implementation, which are the foundation of the president's "green jobs" initiative.
However, as the Nobel Laureates' letter points out, the House-passed bill "provides no stable, specific funding for sustained research in the Department of Energy's (DOE) Office of Science, or for the energy research and associated technology development programs of DOE (at the Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, Electricity Deliverability, Fossil, and Nuclear offices)."
The House bill would create technology deployment programs for particular industries, including coal, oil refineries, and autos, but only 1.5 percent of funds in the bill would be allocated to energy R&D, and the bill provides no support for the president's proposed Fund.
"This is a dangerous omission" said Burton Richter, the leader of the group of laureates who signed the letter and winner of the Nobel Prize in Physics. "Much can be done with the current generation of technologies. However, study after study has confirmed that to combine growing prosperity worldwide with sharply reduced production of greenhouse gases will require technological advances that are possible only through research."
Federal energy research in new energy technologies declined from 1980 to 2007 by more than 50 percent in real dollars, and corporate energy research has also declined significantly. A $3 billion surge in venture funding for energy last year provided funds for commercialization of energy technology, not research, but even this source of funding has tumbled because of the recession. Many reports, including one by President George W. Bush's Council of Advisors for Science and Technology, have called for at least the doubling or tripling of private and federal energy research funding.
"President Obama has responded to these concerns by proposing a Clean Energy Technology Fund," said Richter. "But Congress so far has failed to act. The climate legislation will not be nearly as effective if it does not provide for strong and stable funding of research."
Federal energy research has led directly to advances in many technologies that have helped control the cost of energy services and greatly reduced the environmental impact of energy production and use. Examples include efficient light bulbs (LEDs), energy-efficient windows, high-efficiency gas and coal fired power plants, and low-cost wind power.
"We are nowhere near the limits of what can be accomplished," said Richter. "It would be a mistake to let this opportunity to produce transformational energy research slip through our grasp."
Richter noted that, with sound R&D investments, rapid progress can be expected in technologies that will make buildings, vehicles, and industrial processes much more efficient and affordable than any available today, as well as create a range of new sources of fuels and electricity that produce little or no greenhouse gases and do not depend on energy imports.
Such advances are essential to building a strong, productive economy while improving the global environment. At the same time, technological advances are needed to help make the climate bill affordable to consumers and industry. Examples of expected technological advances include:
understanding the basic constituents of matter at the level of individual atoms and electrons in ways that make it possible to develop dramatically new materials and to understand and imitate biological systems;
advances in information technology that make it possible to use the vast amounts of data collected by sensors in buildings, utility grids, manufacturing plants, advanced engines, and other energy systems;
- affordable devices that could be attached to existing coal plants in the U.S., China, and elsewhere that would remove CO2 and other emissions;
- organic light-emitting materials 5-10 times more efficient than current bulbs that could be produced as cheaply as potato chip bags;
- biological systems capable of producing fuels and a wide variety of chemical products cheaply and with no dangerous byproducts;
- inexpensive solar cells that convert sunlight to electricity 2-3 times more efficiently than today's products;
- affordable ways to make electricity produced by wind or solar equipment and to store electricity in vehicles; and
- low-cost wireless sensors that fine-tune the operation of everything from building energy systems to complex industrial processes.
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