A Bipartisan Approach to Boosting U.S. Competitiveness Through the Department of Energy
Congress has a once-in-a-generation opportunity to boost American competitiveness and prosperity. The U.S. R&D enterprise created the world’s first flu vaccine, invented the personal computer, and was the first to land a man on the moon. The U.S. has no shortage of incredible technological achievements in its short history. But more importantly, all these achievements trace their roots back to funding from the federal government.
Congress is currently considering proposals to build on this legacy by revitalizing federal programs to advance U.S. competitiveness. The Senate passed the United States Innovation and Competition Act (USICA) (68 – 32) in June 2021 and the House passed the America COMPETES Act of 2022 (America COMPETES) in February 2022. A competitiveness package could have monumental impacts on addressing climate change by establishing and revitalizing critical programs in commercialization, manufacturing, and supply chain security that together provide a comprehensive strategy for advancing necessary clean energy technologies.
As Congress works to reconcile the House and Senate bills, BPC recommends the following bipartisan provisions be included in the final bill:
- Regional Clean Energy Innovation Program (Sec. 10642 of America COMPETES)
- Foundation for Energy Security and Innovation (Sec. 2528 of USICA and Sec. 10751 of America COMPETES))
- Energizing Technology Transfer (Title VI, Subtitle C of America COMPETES)
- Robust authorization for DOE activities to advance key technology focus areas (Sec. 2117 of USICA and Sec. Division B, Title I of America COMPETES)
Increasing innovation, invention, and entrepreneurship in a diverse array of regions
Clean energy investments can create economic opportunities for Americans, in addition to significant climate benefits. However, these opportunities will only be realized if energy and climate programs are designed at the onset with the intention of benefitting the American people. Currently, innovation is concentrated in just a few key cities – a 2019 report co-authored by Brookings and ITIF finds that from 2005 to 2017, just five metro areas accounted for more than 90% of the nation’s innovation sector growth. As we consider how to improve the nation’s competitiveness, Congress should ensure that Americans across the country benefit from the wealth creation, economic development, and employment opportunities that such investments are certain to bring.
In the final legislation, Congress should include the Regional Clean Energy Innovation Program (Sec. 10642 of America COMPETES), a bipartisan provision that would authorize DOE to invest in regions across the country to promote innovation clusters dedicated to making the important advances needed in clean energy.
Building on existing federal programs that support commercialization
Nonprofit energy foundation
In recent years, private companies, including Microsoft, Amazon, and Unilever, have dedicated billions of dollars to climate and clean energy funds to accelerate solutions meant to address climate change. However, these impressive financial commitments will fall short of their potential unless the public and private sectors work alongside each other to make investments in the most promising clean energy solutions.
To maximize these synergies, Congress should include the Foundation for Energy Security and Innovation (Sec. 2528 of USICA and Sec. 10751 of America COMPETES) in the final legislation, which would mobilize public and private sector financing to help bring clean energy technologies to market and improve partnerships with the DOE national labs. As a 2017 report from the American Energy Innovation Council stated, such foundations exist already for the National Institutes of Health and the Department of Agriculture and have successfully leveraged a small amount of federal funds to attract significant private capital.
A report requested by Congress and written by the National Academy of Public Administration found that there is significant private sector interest in such a foundation and it would help amplify and complement existing commercialization activities in DOE’s Office of Technology Transitions (OTT). A nonprofit energy foundation could be a catalyzing force for OTT’s mission and goals by reducing barriers to public-private collaboration and creating new opportunities for commercialization partnerships with DOE and the national labs.
Greater coordination, through a nonprofit energy foundation, will ensure that the most promising U.S. energy technologies receive robust funding and support to make their way to market. Our nation needs solutions in technologies spanning from carbon capture systems, to long-duration energy storage, to clean hydrogen, to advanced nuclear reactors, and so much more, to address climate goals. DOE has the experts who understand the ins and outs of our nation’s energy system and what technologies are needed to fulfill our long-term strategy for achieving net-zero emissions. The private sector understands the commercial market, customer needs, and what technologies are most likely to succeed financially. Both sets of expertise are needed. A nonprofit foundation will enable this collaboration while sidestepping the inevitable bureaucracy of the federal government.
A competitiveness bill presents a significant opportunity to supercharge DOE commercialization programs by supporting and expanding programs housed under the OTT. This small but mighty office, with a budget of $20 million in fiscal year 2021, has significant potential to disrupt our nation’s commercialization landscape. Congress should include Energizing Technology Transfer provisions (Division B, Title VI, Subtitle C of America COMPETES) to help unlock the commercialization of critical technologies relevant to DOE’s broad mission and bolster public-private partnerships with DOE national labs through greater support for OTT programs. This includes programs to:
- foster interest in commercialization in undergraduate students, building an entrepreneurial pipeline of diverse thinkers,
- make it easier for entrepreneurs and small businesses to utilize DOE national lab facilities and equipment, allowing our nation’s inventors access to world-class, multi-million-dollar scientific facilities, and
- support clean energy incubators and accelerators across the nation, providing essential services to early-stage companies and entrepreneurs to help strengthen innovation ecosystems across the nation.
Investing in a variety of technology sectors
One of the cornerstones of both the House and Senate bills is advancing U.S. competitiveness in ‘key technology focus areas’, including in artificial intelligence and machine learning, quantum information science, high performance computing, advanced manufacturing, and biotechnology. The DOE’s Office of Science is leading the nation in investments in these key areas through partnerships with universities, the national labs, and the private sector. A few examples are listed below:
- High-performance computing: The DOE’s national labs are home to several of the world’s fastest computers, which frequently beat international competitors in Japan and the China as new computers are brought online on a periodic basis. The DOE Office of Science collaborates with private sector companies to develop and build these supercomputers.
- Biotechnology: The DOE Office of Science has a long history of investing in biotechnology and bioscience, including in genomics, structural biology, and bioimaging. Notably, the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines developed to combat the COVID-19 virus trace their origins to experiments performed on equipment at DOE’s Argonne National Lab.
- Quantum Information Sciences (QIS): The DOE Office of Science oversees the nation’s five National QIS Research Centers. Through this national network housed at DOE national labs and U.S. universities, DOE is poised to establish the world’s first quantum internet.
Growing these existing DOE programs with a greater focus on public-partnerships could rapidly accelerate commercialization of these key technologies. DOE has several programs to support industry-specific public-private partnerships, such as through the DOE Energy Innovation Hubs and Manufacturing USA Institutes, which bring together key stakeholders from industry, academia, and the national labs to advance technologies from the earliest stages of research to the point of commercialization. As the federal agency that spearheaded the commercialization of solar power and wind power, DOE knows how to do this, and with additional authorization, DOE can do this again. Final legislation should authorize DOE to invest in commercialization of the key technology areas (Sec. 2117 of USICA) and basic research in these key areas (Sec. Division B, Title I of America COMPETES) that are essential to our nation’s competitiveness.
We are at a critical moment in our nation’s future. Congress can pass legislation that would secure America’s place on the global innovation stage for years to come. The bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act showed the American people that Democrats and Republicans can come together to make investments in critical infrastructure and clean energy and essentially put a down payment on accelerating our fight against climate change. Getting a bipartisan competitiveness bill to the President’s desk would expand the federal tools available to effectively develop and commercialize clean energy technologies while securing U.S. leadership, security, and prosperity.
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