Published: Wednesday, 11 August 2021 23:51
The U.S. Senate yesterday passed legislation that calls for spending $1 trillion—including $550 billion in new funds—on improving the nation’s infrastructure. Most of the funding will go to upgrading transportation, water, and power infrastructure, as well as expanding broadband internet access. But the bill also includes some money for R&D, primarily for advancing clean energy technologies, including electric vehicles and efforts to trap carbon dioxide produced by power plants before it enters the atmosphere.
Passage of the Senate bill—on a bipartisan 69 to 30 vote—marks a major political victory for President Joe Biden. Still, the bill is far smaller than the $2.6 trillion version the White House originally proposed, and it does not include some $600 billion that Biden originally wanted to spend on R&D and related initiatives, including efforts to combat climate change. The bill now goes to the House of Representatives, where some Democratic legislators say they will try to restore some of those climate-related programs, as well as other spending provisions. That’s a politically risky move, however, because it could cause some of the 19 Republican Senators who now support the bill to withdraw their backing of any final product.
ScienceInsider spoke with David Hart, a science policy expert at George Mason University who has been closely following the bill, about its research-related provisions. This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Q: What are the new bill’s implications for science and research?
A: The biggest thing is there will be a lot more dollars flowing through the Department of Energy [DOE]. How much that will affect the academic community is a little bit unclear. A lot of the dollars are going to go to demonstration projects, which are likely going to be led by companies. There may be a role for research institutions. I certainly think [DOE’s] national labs will play a role, and probably universities will play a role in some of these projects as well.
Q: Any demonstration projects stand out?
A: The biggest amount goes into carbon capture and [developing hydrogen-based power systems]. The biggest number is $8 billion for a regional clean hydrogen hub. This is over a 5-year period. There are plans to set up a new office within DOE.
Q: Is DOE likely to be able to handle this responsibility?
A: There is going to be a capacity question within DOE—how well they will be able to execute this big new responsibility. One thing that will make it easier is that a lot of these will be large projects in terms of getting the money out the door. But there will also be new skills that are called for. Managing a demonstration project is different than managing an R&D program. Obviously, you have to have some technical expertise to make the proper selection. But then a lot of it is about managing costs, managing schedules. It’s more like building a big factory than running a lab.
Q: Why are demonstration projects significant?
A: I think it’s the biggest gap in our clean energy innovation system. The United States is good at generating ideas, good at coming up with prototypes that work at the lab scale. [But] when it comes to scaling up high-capital expenditure projects, we don’t have a great financing system for that. In fact, it’s a global problem.
These are risky projects, large dollar projects, and the payoffs down the road are very uncertain. Even if you succeed as a company that does one of these, you may see your competitors benefit because you’ve shown that something can be done and now they can freeride on that. So, there is a rationale for the public to bear at least some of the cost of these projects.
This bill really starts to fill that gap. We really haven’t had a big federal investment in demonstration since the 2009 [American Recovery and Reinvestment Act]. In climate years that’s a long time.
Q: Why are demonstration projects so critical in clean energy compared with other fields?
A: Because the projects tend to be higher capital expenditures, and the competition is supercheap. So, if you are competing with gas-fired power plants, that is a very tough cost and performance specification to meet. That’s why private sector companies are unlikely to do this without some regulatory incentives or price incentives. But even with [such incentives], we see that some kind of [government] grants are generally needed to get these big projects over the hump.
Q: There has been a lot of political controversy about clean energy demonstration projects in the past. Are we walking into another minefield here?
A: There used to be more ideological conflicts. [One question has been:] How far down the pipeline does the government role extend? The Democratic Party has always been more comfortable with getting closer to the market than Republicans. But Republicans are much more willing to support [certain] demonstration projects than they used to be. Things like nuclear projects, carbon capture, hydrogen, and energy storage.
Q: Are there any projects that are funded in this infrastructure package that wouldn’t have been funded in the normal federal funding mechanisms?
A: The scale of it is what makes it stand out. It’s hard to point to any particular project since they are still on the drawing board. But the [funding] numbers were going to be much lower if we just stuck with annual appropriations. For instance, in the DOE Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy Office—setting aside the demonstration projects—just R&D is going to more than double.
Q: What are the implications of this bill for more fundamental clean energy research?
A: One is that it could give [fundamental research programs] more targets to shoot at. These demonstration projects, and more advanced applied research, [could] point out areas where we need more basic research to understand things. For example, there is a lot of interest in taking carbon out of the atmosphere, carbon removal. If we want to do that through soil sequestration, there is a lot we don’t know. So, I think the promise of larger projects down the road can shift the agenda for more fundamental research. There is that dialogue between fundamental and applied research, which this will contribute to.
Q: What impact might this bill have on Earth’s climate?
A: To me, the exciting development is that we are talking about solutions that we are going to need down the road. I think there is a lot of opportunity to deploy technologies in the electricity and transportation sectors. We need to build out renewables. That’s cost effective now. We’re moving towards electric vehicles for passenger cars. That’s getting pretty cost effective now. For sectors like industry and the power sector that need to be 24/7 reliable, these are the projects that are going to help develop those solutions.
When we get to the point where—hopefully—we are cutting emissions in other sectors, we will need contributions from the so-called hard-to-decarbonize sectors. Then [the technologies] will be demonstrated and ready to go. Especially these big capital projects, they take a long time to build. Then they need to perform for a while before they show they are technologies [attractive to private investors]. For 10 years ahead, that’s showing a lot more foresight than we’ve shown in the past.
The other factor is a lot of other countries are starting to take these kinds of investments seriously as well. So, we risk falling behind the curve in areas like clean steel and clean cement and so on. There is a global competition that is starting to emerge. This will help the U.S. play its role.
Q: Did anything not make it in the bill that you were hoping for?
A: Not a specific provision, but I would say advanced [renewable energy technologies] don’t get as much attention as they deserve. While the Democrats are enthusiastic about renewables, they are focused on deployment, and the Republicans are more supportive of nuclear, CCS [carbon capture and storage], and the like.
Q: Any final thoughts?
A: This is not the final word on climate and energy. There is still a big agenda to go. It’s a big step forward in the innovation area. I’m excited to see it pass the Senate and I hope the House will pass it.
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