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, and is thought to appeal to the innovative mind of Energy Secretary Steven Chu, a former director of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in Livermore, CA, and a Nobel Laureate in physics. But for now, it is just a policy framework for lawmakers to sink their teeth into as they debate energy priorities, Muro says.

The lobbying push for this plan will pick up on Feb. 9 in a panel at the National Press Club in Washington DC. The panel will feature the study’s lead author, former University of Michigan president Jim Duderstadt, as well as Boeing’s Glover and Konarka’s Berke.

The Northwest has shown pockets of strength recently in various slices of cleantech— through EnerG2, a University of Washington spinoff funded by OVP Venture Partners, some IT talent being applied to energy conservation (like at Seattle-based Verdiem), and Boeing’s effort to develop alternative jet fuels, Malarkey says. But the state still doesn’t have a formal proposal put together or a comprehensive analysis of the region’s competitive strengths and weaknesses, Malarkey says.

Berke said he was unavailable to take questions about any regional plan in time for my deadline. (The guy has been busy, having nailed down a $45 million venture investment last month from Total, the Paris-based oil and gas conglomerate.)

Even though the regional proposals aren’t yet “fully baked,” as Malarkey says, I definitely get the sense that a lot of behind-the-scenes maneuvers are taking place among local government and industry officials to whip them into shape. One of the keys will be making sure regions put their best foot forward with a real business proposal that plays up the specific strength that each region has that can contribute to solving a problem this huge.

“This is the story of the next decade,” Malarkey says. When pressed for more details on the proposal, she said it’s still a work in progress. “The Brookings group has the ear of the Obama Administration, and a network of well-funded centers of excellence in the U.S. makes a lot of sense.”

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  • Sherry

    There could be no better investment in America than to invest in America becoming energy independent! We need to utilize everything in out power to reduce our dependence on foreign oil including using our own natural resources. Create cheap clean energy, new badly needed green jobs, and reduce our dependence on foreign oil. OPEC will continue to cut production until they achieve their desired 80-100. per barrel. If all gasoline cars, trucks, and SUV’s instead had plug-in electric drive trains, the amount of electricity needed to replace gasoline is about equal to the estimated wind energy potential of the state of North Dakota. There is a really good new book out by Jeff Wilson called The Manhattan

  • This is all good news, but I was surprised to see your statement:
    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.

    The link was from a 2006 Time Magazine article. The sad truth is more like this poll published last week which shows a decrease in popular support for global warming issues.

    As a Boston-area resident, I have nothing but hope that we’ll end up doing the right thing!