What’s Next for U.S. Energy R&D?

John Gilleland, Chief Technical Officer

Many people are waiting to see the real policy changes that result from the recent U.S. election. As an energy guy, I am most interested in the future of government-backed energy research and development (R&D). Government-supported R&D has been critical to new breakthroughs for decades. And there is a very good reason why.

Patient private investors are dedicating billions to research new energy technologies around the world. This early-stage funding is crucial because it kick-starts innovation and allows the development of radical new ideas. However, there comes a point in the development process when the risk and financial burden becomes too great for private investment to bear alone. That’s when government-backed investment in R&D programs help the most promising technologies bridge the gap to commercial readiness. This is especially true in the nuclear sector.

Around the world, total investment in the energy sector declined 8 percent in 2015. In the United States, government spending on energy R&D remains much less than other sectors: an average of $2.2 billion per year, or about 2 percent of the overall U.S. R&D budget. In comparison, 56 percent of the U.S. R&D budget goes to defense R&D.

Fortunately, change is possible. Many American lawmakers, for example, support energy policies that boost energy investment. Initiatives like the Gateway for Accelerated Innovations in Nuclear (GAIN) and Clean Energy Manufacturing Initiative (CEMI) provide valuable frameworks to emulate. Efforts on a global scale, like Mission Innovation, hold great promise for increased dedication to energy R&D.

But, that change needs to happen at a much faster rate than it currently does. As I’ve shared before, the twin problems of climate change and energy poverty are real. The world needs “zero” carbon energy sources now. While there will always be some disagreement between scientists about the exact ways in which human activities drive climate change. But, among those who are truly expert in the field, there is an overwhelming consensus that Earth’s anthropogenic era has already begun – a new epoch of geological time dominated by human impact. What we must do now is minimize the impact of this time on Earth’s integrated system.

Continued small investments like we have seen historically from the United States government certainly move the needle in the right direction. As Stanford University’s Dan Reicher pointed out in a recent opinion piece, even “modest federal funding could help accelerate the commercialization of critical energy technologies developed by U.S. companies and sales at home and around the globe.” But, if we are to truly affect change, governments around the globe must prioritize funding energy R&D.

As one of the most efficient, cleanest forms of energy, a future without nuclear is one that compromises energy and technology leadership and jobs, and further contributes to climate change. Increased funding in nuclear technologies leads to faster commercialization. Companies like TerraPower can do their part to innovate, but they can only do so much. John Deutch, former director of energy research at the U.S. Department of Energy, recently stated, “If you do not take a major initiative now, it is inevitable that in 2030 the country will not have a nuclear [energy] option…Any such initiative is going to require time, considerable federal resources, redesign of electricity markets, and sustained and skilled management.” Clearly, continued investment in energy R&D by governments around the world is what’s needed to ensure our future moves in the right direction.