Making Clean Energy Innovation Happen

While clean energy innovation has wide appeal, the means to achieve it remain controversial.

  • The Wall Street Journal
  • March 13, 2019
  • Tim Gardner

This article ran in a special section of the Wall Street Journal published on March 13, 2019. 

Investment in clean energy innovation enjoys broad support: federal funding for clean energy research increased over the past two years, with bipartisan congressional backing. Yet converting research breakthroughs — no matter how compelling — into products capable of achieving transformative scale remains a major challenge. 

Today’s energy systems are vast and complex. Historically, change in these systems has been driven by lower costs or better functionality and has played out over decades. Introducing new technologies into this environment is not easy. Successful innovation requires long-term research to get the basic science right; long-term development to get the engineering right; and scale to get the economics right. This last requirement presents a chicken-or-egg problem: To get economies of scale you need a market, but to capture a market you need economies of scale. 

While clean energy innovation has wide appeal, the means to achieve it remain controversial. Some assume the private sector, with government support for basic research, will do the job. Others assume that the necessary technologies (primarily wind and solar) already exist and policy mandates will do the job. 

A more comprehensive perspective is needed. To meet growing national and global energy needs while materially reducing carbon emissions, renewable power sources are not sufficient. Other transformative technologies will also be required. Yet these technologies will need sustained research support over an extended period, and they will need markets. The private sector cannot supply these by itself. 

In a new study IHS Markit undertook with the Energy Futures Initiatives at the request of Breakthrough Energy, Advancing the Landscape of Clean Energy Innovation, we identified 10 key areas of innovation that could play major roles in future energy systems: 

  • Storage and battery technologies — to match intermittent renewable energy to electric power market load patterns and to permit electrification of transport. 
  • Advanced nuclear reactors — to provide flexibly-sited, zero-carbon baseload power. 
  • Hydrogen generated by zero-carbon power — to supply energy in a variety of transportation and industrial applications. 
  • Advanced manufacturing technologies — to reduce energy consumption in production processes. 
  • Construction and energy management technologies — to reduce energy requirements for houses and commercial/ industrial structures. 
  • Electric grid modernization and smart cities — to integrate central and distributed energy sources and to bring power supply and demand into efficient balance. 
  • Large-scale coordinated carbon management systems — to use, absorb, or store carbon that cannot be eliminated through new energy production technologies. 
  • Carbon capture, use, and storage — to make economic use of carbon and store it to prevent entry into the atmosphere. 
  • Conversion of sunlight to fuels through enhanced photosynthesis — to provide plant-based liquid fuels that could be used in multiple applications. 
  • Biological sequestration — to draw carbon out of the atmosphere through absorption by plants, marine microalgae, and soil. 

Energy innovation on the scale needed to develop and disseminate these technologies will require the coordinated and purposeful interaction of three forces: public policies that fund basic research and early-stage development to create new energy technologies; private-sector translation of research into viable applications that serve market needs; and public policy to spur market demand. If any one of these three forces is weak, energy innovation will languish. If all of them are strong, building on the pluralistic and pragmatic innovation culture that has made the United States a world leader in technology for many decades, they will transform our energy future.  

Tim Gardner is Vice President at IHS Markit.