America: A “Model” for Energy Security?

Borrowing an idea from reality television, the Department of Energy is injecting a bit of excitement into the world of energy innovation with its “America’s Next Top Energy Innovator” contest that kicks off on May 2.

Secretary Chu unveiled the competition this week as a challenge to entrepreneurs to “move technologies invented in our National Laboratories out of the lab and into the marketplace.”  Only about 10 percent of the 15,000 patents and patent applications from the 17 national labs have been utilized commercially, and the contest supports expanded technology transfer from outstanding inventions to successful business activity.  Winners will receive a discounted rate for licensing National Laboratories patents and a spot at the 2012 ARPA-E Energy Innovation Summit.

Although the contest won’t feature runway challenges or photo shoots,the contestants will have to create a business plan by the December 15th deadline.  Unlike its televised counterpart however, there are no losers in this competition, and the program is more of an effort to maximize innovation than a zero-sum contest.  To help participants along, DOE has provided examples of potential technologies that could be licensed- including an energy conversion system and semi-conductor materials.

President Obama expanded on the DOE’s announcement in a speech at Georgetown University Wednesday, offering the full picture of the administration’s push for a more “diverse energy portfolio” in the coming years.  Driven by a desire to see one million electric cars on the road by 2015 and have 80 percent of the nation’s electricity come from clean energy sources by 2035, the Obama plan combines short-term plans to diversify supply with far-reaching efforts to establish the U.S. energy market as the leader in clean energy research and development.According to a recent report from the Pew Environment Group, the United States has slipped from first to third in private investment in clean energy since 2008, dropping significantly behind Germany and China.  Other leading countries “have adopted strong policies such as renewable energy standards, carbon reduction targets and/or incentives for investment and production” said Phyllis Cuttino, director of Pew’s Clean Energy Program. With the United States in “the middle of the pack” for indicators of clean energy growth, the report highlights the growing disparity in international energy competitiveness.

The Obama plan aims to reinforce economic competitiveness, and create American jobs for the future in the energy market.  The U.S. still receives 75% of global venture capital directed at energy innovation projects, but as Michael Liebreich, CEO of Bloomberg New Energy Finance explained, it “has not been creating demand for deployment of clean energy.  As a result it is losing out on opportunities to attract investment, create manufacturing capabilities and spur job growth.”

Critics suggest that Obama’s plan doesn’t do enough to address the true challenges we face.  Robert Stavins, an environmental economist at Harvard points to the conspicuous absence of cap and trade in Obama’s remarks and questions the gravity of the long-term effects of the president’s clean energy standards.  “There is a real danger that enacting these standards will create the illusion that we have done something serious to address climate change [and] create a favored set of businesses that will oppose future adoption of more efficient, serious, broad-based policies.”

Posted by: Rachel Barker and John Coit

Sources: Department of Energy, Fast Company, International Business Times, The Pew Foundation, Sustainablebusiness.com, Washington Post, Whitehouse.gov

Photo Credit: Clean energy by Flickr user scottjlowe

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