Energy R&D Network Proposal Has Seattle, Boston Leaders Eyeing Possibilities

One intriguing idea getting shuttled around President Obama’s inner circle could end up pouring significant cash into the innovation hubs of Seattle and Boston. This idea, hatched at the Brookings Institution in Washington D.C., calls for building a national network of two dozen or more centers of excellence in cleantech R&D, with annual budgets of as much as $200 million from competitive research grants, to jumpstart innovation in alternative energy.

Several regional leaders in Seattle, including Boeing’s Billy Glover, the company’s managing director of environmental strategy, Washington State University vice president for economic development John Gardner, and the Technology Alliance’s executive director Susannah Malarkey, and are “all over this” idea, says Mark Muro, a fellow and policy director at Brookings. Leading the charge from the New England contingent is Howard Berke, co-founder of Lowell, MA-based Konarka Technologies, a maker of material that converts solar light to electricity on flexible plastic.

The basic outline of the proposal goes like this. The world gets about 85 percent of its energy from fossil fuels now, and worldwide demand for energy is on track to climb by 50 percent over the next two decades. The U.S. government currently spends less than 1 percent of its R&D budget on energy, which is about one-fifth of what the nation spent in the ’70s and ’80s. The existing network of national labs spawned in the World War II era, like the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland, WA, and Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, aren’t really set up to spin off innovative new technologies to businesses that can turn them into practical real-world products. And, importantly, there’s public support to do something about it. About two-thirds of Americans say it’s time to get serious about tackling global warming—and energy innovation is a big part of that effort.

So, after 18 months of spadework in meetings with university and industry officials, Brookings is proposing this new network of Energy Discovery Innovation Institutes. The vision is to form a network of the nation’s top scientists, engineers and facilities, in a massive collaboration with industry, state government, universities, and investors. This effort would cost $6 billion a year, representing about one-fourth of the nation’s total energy R&D budget.

“This isn’t solely for university research, we see these places as having more of an applied or commercial bent,” Muro says. “We think the complexity of the energy situation, and the compelling need for transformative solutions means that over time, this will be a huge job creator and creator of innovation.”

This idea “has gotten a lot of attention” from Obama’s transition team, … Next Page »

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