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Science Careers Blog

June 29, 2009

Climate Change Bill Creates New Energy Research Centers

One section of the climate-change bill passed by the U.S. House of Representatives on Friday (officially, the American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009, or ACES), creates a series of clean energy innovation centers under the Department of Energy with three objectives:

"(1) leverage the expertise and resources of the university and private research communities, industry, venture capital, national laboratories, and other participants in energy innovation to support cross-disciplinary research and development in areas not being served by the private sector in order to develop and transfer innovative clean energy technologies into the marketplace;

"(2) expand the knowledge base and human capital necessary to transition to a low-carbon economy; and

"(3) promote regional economic development by cultivating clusters of clean energy technology firms, private research organizations, suppliers, and other complementary groups and businesses."

The new centers will focus on clean energy technologies, those produced from renewable sources such as wind, solar, biomass, and tidal. They will also conduct R&D on improving energy distribution, encouraging smart grid development, enhancing energy efficiencies in buildings and industries, producing materials with energy or energy-efficiency applications, improving water management and conservation, and enhancing energy efficiency in transportation (e.g., developing electrical vehicles).

This section of the bill (sec. 171, sub-title H) authorizes establishing eight of these centers, each with a particular research focus. ACES requires the centers to be composed of consortia, each with two research universities and at least one other qualifying entity, defined as a state institution or non-government organization with research or commercialization expertise.

Commercialization plays a key role in this part of the bill. Each center is required to have a commercialization unit, with the task of speeding to market the research generated from these centers. The bill tasks these units with making sure the private sector participates in the centers and and that the centers do not displace work already undertaken by for-profit companies.

An analysis of ACES by the Brookings Institution applauds the establishment of these centers, but considers the funds authorized for them "paltry". The analysis notes that ACES establishes an important principle by devoting a slice of the funds generated by the cap-and-trade system established in the bill, a slice that's likely to amount to about $1.4 billion per year.

Brookings says the U.S. needs to invest $20-30 billion in energy R&D per year to create technologies deployable on a large enough scale to make a difference. The House version of ACES, according to the Brookings report, projects at most a total of $9 billion in annual spending for the innovation centers and other development projects from 2012 to 2025.

The bill now goes to the Senate.

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