Today, March 15, President Obama made a speech at the Argonne National Laboratory, outside of Chicago, to promote a clean transportation idea that he trumpeted in his State of the Union address. His idea is to set up an Energy Security Trust, which would use $2 billion collected from oil and gas production and allocate to clean fuels research.
The idea first gained prominent attention in the State of the Union, and has a semblance of bipartisan support. Senator Lisa Murkoski, Minority Leader on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, called for a similar idea as part of her energy plan released in early February.
While bipartisan support for the Energy Security Trust gives it better odds of passage than other energy initiatives, significant differences remain between the President’s plan and Senator Murkowski’s version. The President supports using royalties from existing oil and gas production on the outer continental shelf while Senator Murkowski wants to use royalties from opening up new lands to fossil fuel production.
The President chose Argonne National Lab for Friday’s speech because the lab is already doing research into advanced batteries and vehicles. Several years ago, Argonne received money as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (the “stimulus”) to advance battery technology for electric vehicles. However, the “sequester” is forcing cutbacks. The President hopes the Energy Trust Fund can fill in the holes caused by recent budget cuts.
Argonne hosts the Joint Center for Energy Storage Research (JCESR), an initiative announced last year by the Department of Energy to consolidate energy storage research to one facility, which had previously been spread out across the country. This, DOE asserts, will accelerate progress.
Researchers at Argonne are seeking to develop advanced batteries that increase “storage capacities and power densities.” This would lower the cost of electric vehicles and allow them to travel further on a single charge. Battery storage could also be used to store energy from renewable technologies, smoothing out the fluctuations. For example, when wind blows at night, the energy could be stored and used when demand is higher during the day.
Regardless of where the revenues come from to fund such an initiative, America’s R&D budget is critical not only for advanced vehicle technology, but for long-term prosperity generally. As Paul Alivisatos, Director of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and Eric Isaacs, Director of Argonne National Laboratory, wrote a good article in The Atlantic earlier this week on the declining state of America’s R&D system.
They note that studies have shown that “over the past half century, more than half of the growth in our nation’s GDP has been rooted in scientific discoveries – the kinds of fundamental, mission-driven research that we do at the labs.”
Also, even before the sequester, less than 1% of the federal budget went to fund basic science research. The U.S. spends more on employee parking ($3.1 billion) than the Department of Energy spends on applied R&D ($2.27 billion). With recent cuts from the sequester, R&D funding will decline further. As Alivisatos and Isaacs note, these short-term savings could cost billions to the economy over the long-run from “gaps in the innovation pipeline.” It’s a penny wise and a pound foolish.
Moreover, in order to break our dependence on fossil fuels, the U.S. must develop new clean energy technologies. This will require substantial and consistent funding for innovation at our national labs. Hopefully the administration can work with Congress to see the Energy Security Trust come to fruition, but the President’s remarks today are a promising sign that policymakers understand the critical role of America’s R&D system.