Breakthrough Institute Visit Recap

Yesterday I stopped in at the Breakthrough Institute offices in Oakland and had a lively discussion about energy innovation with Michael Shellenberger, Jesse Jenkins, Alex Trembath and Jessica Lovering. (FYI, I’m a Sr. Fellow at Breakthrough).

Are We Driving Innovation?

I’ve become deeply skeptical of DOE’s Loan Program Office, so I shared my current thoughts. We discussed the pros and cons of federal loans and loan guarantees for advancing key energy technologies, both in the theoretical abstract, and in the messier reality of DOE’s actual activities.

Since solar is the only coherent investment that the DOE loan program has made, most of the discussion revolved around whether investing in multiple, similar photovoltaic (PV) solar projects made sense. Was the right number zero, one or two, the number they did, or a whole bunch? With PV not yet at grid parity, and costs continuing to drop, how do you weight investing today versus 2, 5 or 10 years from now?

Jesse zero’ed in on the key question: since PV isn’t economical today, are these investments at least driving needed innovation to get us to the future PV that can stand on its own merit? We went back and forth on this question without resolution, but hopefully the discussion will lead to some further study of this situation and provide some better framing of future versions (or not) of the loan program.

Role of Federal v. State and Local Government

One of the topics I raise in every energy policy discussion is what should be driven at a federal versus state and/or local level. For a number of reasons policy advocacy has been way overweighted to the federal level, when in reality much of today’s US energy policy authority and implementation lies with states and municipalities. Furthermore, I argue that there are key reasons that sub-federal authorities are more likely to drive actual policy change, due to their proximity to their constituents’ concerns and their heightened sensitivity to competitive issues, especially compared to the US federal government.

Of course it is much harder to influence policy at scale at the state and local levels, so like a golfer who looks for his lost ball outside of the woods where it will be easiest to play, our tendency is to look for policy answers at the federal level. However, I think it is time to face reality and start to think of ways to influence sub-federal levels with scalable results.

We had a good back and forth on this, with Michael raising some good points about where the right balance might lie, and Jesse forwarding some ideas for research in this area. I plan on writing more about this, but the discussion was useful in furthering my thought process.

Unique Energy Roadmaps

Finally, the big takeaway for me from the meeting was to more finely distinguish the innovation roadmaps of the various technologies.

The discussion brought out the stark differences in the challenges of getting to scale with solar, wind, geothermal, nuclear, energy storage or even natural gas. Time after time in the discussion we came back to the point that broad policy actions weren’t going to be equally effective across these, and that each really needed its own innovation roadmap and policy plan for acceleration.

The good news, though, is that there aren’t hundreds of candidate technologies; instead there’s the list above, plus maybe a few more. In addition there is a list of a few dozen “wildcard” technologies that need support (fusion, artificial photosynthesis, etc), but are clearly in the early stage and fall within the early stage R&D support that, when properly funded, the federal government has a strong history of executing on.

I hope this insight will spread and lead to technology-specific innovation roadmap discussions, as opposed to general, cross-technology policy discussions.