R and D and Climate Change: You Can’t Get There from Here…

As the Senate kicks off debate on climate change legislation, one holdover from the House discussions remains: Does the bill include adequate R&D funding for new energy technologies?

Congressman Rush Holt (NJ-12th) recently took up the issue in the House, expressing concern, and even engaging in a colloquy on the floor with House Foreign Relations Chairman Congressman Howard Berman (CA-28th). Holt called for increased R&D funding for energy technologies, so that the U.S. can meet the expansive climate change targets outlined in the House bill. Unfortunately, that bill, the American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009 (H.R. 2454), passed with little provision for R&D funding for advanced energy technologies.

Once again, we’re talking common sense. If the U.S. is going to achieve emissions targets, the more ambitious of which is the 20% reduction of 2005 levels by 2020 as proposed in the Senate bill, then we absolutely must continue to develop advanced energy technologies to accomplish the goal.

For example, calls to use less gas will necessitate greater R&D funding. According to the APS Energy Efficiency report, “An all-electric battery-powered vehicle would reduce to zero the use of petroleum as a fuel for light-duty vehicles. However, achieving the same range as a gasoline-powered car… requires batteries with much larger capacity than is needed for plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs)….batteries with the needed energy storage per unit weight and per unit volume do not exist. A long- term R&D program will be required to develop them.”

Even batteries for PHEVs aren’t up to snuff right now. But, if history is any indication, securing adequate investment in R&D for energy technologies doesn’t look promising. In fact, the U.S. currently invests roughly the same amount in advanced battery technologies that we did in the 1970s.

Yes, financial incentives are an important part of the reduction equation: make it too costly for companies to dump greenhouse gas-causing emissions into the atmosphere. But without significant advances in technologies that make such actions easier and cheaper, even achievable, we simply can’t get there from here.

Policy news and viewpoints for the physics community. The analysis and opinions are those of the APS Office of Public Affairs and do not necessarily represent the entire Society.