This article is part of the Future Agenda, a series from Future Tense in which experts suggest specific, forward-looking actions the new Biden administration should implement. On Wednesday, Feb. 3, at noon Eastern, Future Tense will host an online event to discuss what science, technology, health, and energy priorities the Biden administration should pursue. For more information and to RSVP, visit the New America website.
We still don’t have all the technologies we need to address climate change.
Fortunately, the incoming Biden administration might have the biggest opportunity in more than a decade to drive innovation in climate-friendly technologies.
Consider the terrain. In December, for example, Kairos Power announced plans to build a prototype of its novel salt-cooled high-temperature nuclear reactor at the East Tennessee Technology Park, a campus of Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Kairos, like dozens of other companies in the advanced nuclear power industry, hopes to build reactors that are smaller, simpler, and easier to manufacture and deploy that conventional nuclear technologies. Climate action will depend largely on the success or failure of companies like Kairos, and government agencies like the National Laboratories are deeply invested in their success.
There is a lesson here for President-elect Joe Biden. As a kind of public venture capitalist, the U.S. government has an impressive portfolio. From smartphone touch-screen technology to fake meat to the mRNA pathways currently being developed for COVID-19 vaccines, federal agencies like the National Science Foundation and the Small Business Innovation Research program have seeded countless early-stage science and technology endeavors leading to game-changing innovations. Energy technologies and infrastructure—like advanced reactors, solid-state batteries, direct-air carbon capture, synthetic methane production, and hydrogen technologies—are ripe for such innovation.
The government has a long history of scaling up and proving the viability of new technologies. The U.S. Air Force, for instance, was the first and most aggressive customer for the first microchips, long before most enterprises had any knowledge of, let alone use for, early digital information technologies. Civilian nuclear power was of course born out of the Manhattan Project and Eisenhower’s “Atoms for Peace” program. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency created the infrastructure for both the Internet and the Global Positioning System for internal military use, before these platform technologies were licensed for commercial application. The Department of Energy and its predecessors spent hundreds of millions of dollars and multiple decades testing and demonstrating a variety of unconventional oil and gas drilling and mapping technologies, the fruits of which would go on to spur the shale fracking revolution in the United States.
All these examples show how powerful the federal government can be as either an initial customer or development partner in early-stage technologies. Whether it takes the form of facilities and research funding, technical assistance, or driving economies of scale through technology procurement, federal involvement has often made the key difference in whether new innovations eventually reach commercial viability or not.
With the impressive declines in the cost of solar, wind, and batteries over the past two decades, some have suggested that we have all the technologies we need and now need merely to mandate and subsidize our way to full deployment of low-carbon technologies. Nothing could be further from the truth. The majority of emissions today come from applications we have few or no scalable low-carbon scalable solutions for, like heavy marine and air transport, fertilizers and cement, steel, concrete, and chemicals refining. Extending federal tax credits for solar panels and the like will not come close to solving this challenge. Fortunately, in recent years and even during the Trump administration, federal policy-makers created new innovation programs and policies like the Gateway for Accelerated Innovation in Nuclear and the Department of Energy and the Section 45Q tax credit for carbon removal technologies. We will need a host more new such initiatives for innovation and deployment of new technologies across a range of sectors, from power to industry to transit to agriculture.
Kairos Power and its advanced reactor cousins are just a few of an expanse of nascent technologies that could benefit from early-stage technical and commercial support from the federal government. Southern California Gas Co. is currently constructing the H2 Hydrogen Home, which will use solar photovoltaic panels and electrolysis to produce zero-carbon hydrogen. Toyota recently announced a breakthrough in solid-state vehicle battery technology, which could reduce the costs and improve the range of personal electric vehicles. Dozens of companies are working on technologies to capture carbon emissions from electric power and industrial plants, and from the air itself, including Global Thermostat, a direct-air capture company that recently partnered with ExxonMobile. (By capturing emissions, technologies like Global Thermostat’s can slow global warming even while fossil fuels still meet a significant portion of global energy, food, and industrial demand.) Lots of these technologies won’t work. But some of them might.
Supportive technology policy goes beyond funding basic science or R&D. The history of energy, information technology, agricultural innovation, and other success stories tells us clearly that innovation policy works when it is technology-specific, mission-oriented, and has an eye on market formation as much as technical performance. Solar photovoltaic panels have improved in their thermodynamic efficiency, yes, but deployment subsidies have played an equally substantial role in driving economies of scale and industrial learning. The commercial innovations that came out of the Department of Defense, like GPS and the internet, were originally developed for specific, mission-critical applications within the U.S. military. Replicating these success stories will require not just money, but technical, market, and policy know-how, as well as collaboration between scientists, engineers, and entrepreneurs in the public and private sectors.
Still, the purchasing power of one customer in particular is not to be underestimated. The U.S. government is the largest landowner in the country and a considerable consumer of electricity and fuel for its massive, and many, facilities and vehicle fleets. By partnering with companies like these in technological development or, like with the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, guaranteeing initial purchase of advanced technologies, federal facilities and vehicle fleets could accelerate technological learning, scaling, and cost reduction.
This is not to say that the government could or should act as the primary customer for these technologies in perpetuity. GPS, shale fracking, semiconductors, and the internet all eventually found considerably greater commercial interest from the private sector. Especially in the arenas of “general purpose technologies,” like electricity and information, the success of a new innovation will be determined by its ability to thrive in wider markets. It is notable that the shale gas revolution really kicked off years after the federal tax credit for unconventional gas exploration expired, and that solar and wind projects are increasingly competitive without federal subsidies. With so many technologies yet to reach commercial maturity, it is crucial that the government direct demonstration, procurement, and deployment policies at those most in need of scaling and innovation support.
And the public sector should be strategic with its procurement of above-cost technologies to ensure that those costs are not passed on to lower-income Americans. Installing electrolyzers and advanced nuclear reactors on military bases and National Laboratories is one thing. Mandating next-generation batteries in municipal vehicle fleets or mass transit, where costs may be borne by economically disadvantaged populations, is another.
The lame-duck Congress recently passed an omnibus spending bill that included billions for clean energy innovation policy, a package of legislative spending priorities two years in the making. With a barely Democratic-led Congress and an incoming Biden administration eager to reinvest in post-COVID recovery and stimulus, we can hope these innovations investments are a harbinger of things to come. Federal technology and procurement policies are tried and tested methods to revitalize necessary infrastructure and whole swaths of the American economy. They might also be one of the most important forms of climate action we make this decade.
Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.