The U.S. does many things well, but one thing we do better than any other country is innovation through basic research. Matter of fact, it’s hard to think of an important technological advancement since World War II that has not involved at least some form of government-sponsored research. To solve our energy and climate challenges, the federal government should double funding for basic energy research, and the way to pay for it is by ending the wasteful Big Wind subsidy on Jan. 1, 2017.
I’ve spent much of this year working on legislation to drive biomedical research. Dr. Francis Collins, the director of the NIH, testified that in 10 years researchers in the U.S. may be rebuilding hearts from adult stem cells and giving patients artificial organs. There may be a vaccine for HIV/AIDS.
Just as remarkable are the opportunities available in clean energy research – lowering the cost of energy, cleaning the air, improving health, reducing poverty and helping address climate change.
The biggest problem we have with increasing basic energy research is finding a way to pay for it, so I introduced legislation to help solve that problem. By ending the 24-year-old wind production tax credit at the end of this year instead of at the end of 2019, Congress could use the $8.1 billion saved to increase the funding for the Department of Energy’s Office of Science. This would support the same kind of basic energy research that drove our natural gas boom and could jump-start the next generation of energy innovation.
Let’s not continue to give away this money to wind developers – who move forward with wind energy projects often over the objections of communities, towns and homeowners that don’t want their farmland and mountains littered with massive 45-story turbines.
And I’m not the only one who says we should focus on research instead of incentives for mature energy technology.
Political scientist Bjorn Lomborg wrote in the Wall Street Journal last month that “Instead of rhetoric and ever-larger subsidies of today’s inefficient green technologies, those who want to combat climate change should focus on dramatically boosting innovation to drive down the cost of future green energy.”
Lomborg wrote the U.S. should support energy research the way Bill Gates does through the Breakthrough Energy Coalition – which has committed $7 billion of private funding toward clean energy research.
And Mr. Gates has said to me that the government should double its $5 billion investment in basic energy research to boost clean energy innovation.
Such research could help develop small modular reactors, which would allow inherently safe nuclear power to be produced with less capital investment and less resulting nuclear waste in more places. After all, nuclear power provides 60 percent of our country’s carbon-free electricity, and it is available 92 percent of the time. Wind, on the other hand, produces 15 percent of our country’s carbon-free electricity – and the wind only blows 35 percent of the time.
And basic energy research could also help develop an economical way to capture and use carbon, make solar power cost-competitive and help advance supercomputing – which is essential to solving the most complex scientific problems and maintaining our country’s competitiveness and national security.
In 2014, Congress voted to spend another $6 billion to extend the wasteful wind subsidy for one year. That amount is more than the U.S. spends in an entire year on the Office of Science at the Department of Energy. Let’s not make that mistake again.
Basic energy research is one of the most important things the country can do to help unleash our free enterprise system to provide the clean, cheap, reliable energy we need to power our 21st-century economy, create good jobs and keep America competitive in a global economy.
Lamar Alexander, R-Knoxville, represents Tennessee in the U.S. Senate.
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