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Baker’s Article Defines Where to Focus Green Energy Investment During the Coming Era of Tight Federal Research Funding

Erin Baker

Erin Baker

Professor Erin Baker of the Mechanical and Industrial Engineering Department recently published an article discussing ways to focus clean energy funding that will produce the greatest energy and environmental benefits within the constraints of a tight federal budget. Baker’s article, posted May 22 on the website of The Conversation, was also picked up by the Albany Times Union, San Francisco Chronicle, Pantagraph.com, and others. The headline of Baker’s article was “With a tight federal budget, here’s where to focus clean energy research funding.” Read Baker’s entire article in The Conversation.

The Conversation is an independent source of news and views from the academic and research community, delivered directly to the public. Its team of professional editors work with university and research institute experts to unlock their knowledge for use by the wider public.

Some highlights of Baker’s article reveal not only the status of alternative energy in the current U.S. budgetary plans, but the scientific and smart way to focus federal investments on the most promising alternative energies.

“President Trump’s detailed budget request reportedly will ask Congress to cut funding for the Energy Department’s clean energy programs by almost 70 percent, from $2 billion this year to $636 million in 2018,” as Baker wrote. “Clean energy advocates and environmental groups strongly oppose such drastic cuts, but some reductions are likely. Where should DOE focus its limited funding to produce the greatest energy and environmental benefits?”

To address this problem, as Baker explained, “My colleagues Laura Diaz Anadon of Cambridge University and Valentina Bosetti of Bocconi University and I recently reviewed 15 studies that asked this question. We found a number of clean energy technologies in electricity and transportation that will help us slow climate change by reducing greenhouse gas emissions, even at lower levels of investment.” Her article then specified some of these green alternatives.

Although, as Baker pointed out in her article, there have been some failures in federal alternative-energy investment over the years, “All in all, the National Research Council study indicates that the Energy Department’s investments have paid off, with energy efficiency showing a 300 percent return on investment, and even fossil fuel programs showing a 2 percent return.”

Baker went on to detail a number of highly productive alternative energy investments which have paid off in energy productivity, financial savings, and environmental benefits.

Surprisingly, as Baker showed in her article, “Strong bipartisan support exists for energy R&D. Even the current Republican-dominated Congress slightly increased funding for energy efficiency and renewable energy in the recent stopgap budget that runs through September 30, 2017. However, the long-term trend is running in the wrong direction. While funding for energy research has fluctuated over the last 40 years, the proportion of the federal R&D budget devoted to energy has decreased from 14.4 percent in 1987 to just 5.3 percent in 2017.”

As Baker concluded, “Not all R&D investments will pay off. In fact, that’s one reason we have federal funding. Governments can take risks that are too big for private firms. The Energy Department can reduce that risk and increase chances of a breakthrough by maintaining a diverse portfolio that invests in a range of very different technologies like solar and nuclear power along with vehicles, Carbon Capture and Sequestration, and batteries. If these investments are made smartly, our research indicates that some of them will deliver huge and much-needed returns.” (June 2017)