Beyond R&D: Climate innovation policy can help the U.S. meet the moment

Together with Third Way, EDF co-hosted a Climate Week 2021 event on how U.S. climate innovation policy can accelerate a cleaner, stronger and more equitable economy. Here are four big takeaways.

(Caption: Speakers included Mandela Barnes, Lieutenant Governor, Wisconsin; Chris Deschene, Board Member, National InterTribal Energy Council; Jason Walsh, Executive Director, BlueGreen Alliance; Jetta Wong, Senior Fellow, Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, and President, JLW Advising. The event was moderated by Natasha Vidangos, Senior Director, Climate Innovation and Technology at EDF, and Josh Freed, Senior Vice President, Climate and Energy Program at Third Way.)

Climate innovation is a powerful tool that can create high-quality jobs, improve the quality of life for all communities and catalyze the breakthroughs needed to reach net-zero emissions by no later than 2050. To take advantage of the full opportunity, however, we need strong policies and approaches now that can deliver on all of these challenges, as a recent Climate Week event hosted by Environmental Defense Fund and Third Way made clear.

Innovation in climate technologies includes many stages of development, from research and development through to demonstration and deployment. The U.S. is poised to make major investments in this area to combat climate change: President Biden has pledged to deliver the largest-ever federal investment in clean energy innovation, and the infrastructure and reconciliation packages currently under negotiation in Congress contain large amounts of funding, including specific investments in demonstration and deployment of key technologies. But these investments can feel abstract. What would a strong push for climate innovation mean for U.S. workers and communities, and how can we design these policies to deliver the maximum benefits for all?

Here are four major takeaways from the event, which brought together perspectives from government, labor and advocacy.

1. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to climate innovation. Communities should shape solutions, and we can learn from successful examples.

The conversation around climate innovation policy often centers on R&D for complex technologies among researchers and policymakers; however, the ultimate goal of innovation is to solve real problems facing communities. Innovation occurs at national, but also local levels. Or as panelist Jetta Wong, Senior Fellow at the ITIF, aptly put it, “A lot of people think about innovation as a “whiz bang” technology in a national laboratory, when innovation is something that’s happening on the ground in communities.”

Speakers agreed that collaboration among the federal government, states, tribes and communities is essential to successfully carrying out innovation policy. As Wisconsin Lt Governor Mandela Barnes noted from his experience leading Governor Evers’ Task Force on Climate Change, “the states and localities are where the rubber hits the road…  we have to be state-specific, because the opportunities that exist are state-specific.”

This kind of place-based solution has been done effectively before through the more than 180 projects funded by the Office of Indian Energy Policy and Programs, which has worked hand-in-hand with tribal communities to bring nearly $200 million in investment and 44 MW of primarily renewable energy generation to Indian Country. Chris Deschene, Board Member with the InterTribal Energy Council, noted that this is still small given the vast potential that tribal nations have, but every year more projects are coming online.

Incubators and accelerators, like those that have been funded by the Department of Energy, offer another model. The Los Angeles CleanTech Incubator, an initiative grounded in understanding the issues facing LA, is accelerating zero-emission transportation by bringing together local entrepreneurs, nonprofits and government officials. They’ve launched pilot demonstrations with start-up companies, brought new policy to the table and encouraged the federal leaders to support more investment in clean transportation.

2. With technology demonstration, ownership is key for ensuring equity.

When new clean energy technologies are ready for large-scale demonstration out in communities, panelists underscored that ownership will be critical to ensuring equitable benefits.

“It’s not just about taking in information from communities… we also need to be thinking about closing the wealth gap,” explained Wong.

For example, the National InterTribal Energy Council is working to promote industry partnerships that can scale up federal investment in demonstration in a way that ensures returns go back to tribal communities. This eliminates a “colony model” that solely extracts resources, Deschene described, “Now tribes are about equity and ownership…They want to be able to take these resources and not only put them toward these programs, but look at the larger health and welfare of their communities.” He also noted that when it comes to innovation opportunities, Indian Country is “open for business,” and ready to consider innovative strategies to “leapfrog” traditional ways of delivering energy, such as microgrids and decentralized power solutions.

3. What we invent here should be built here.

In addition to generating climate solutions, U.S. innovation can be a driver for economic growth and opportunity. The speakers emphasized that we have not done enough to fully reap the benefits of innovation here in the United States.

Jason Walsh, Executive Director of the BlueGreen Alliance, noted that U.S. innovations should be developed in the United States. “At this point, we have a depressingly long list of examples of technologies that were developed by U.S. funded R&D in our national labs and then commercialized and deployed in other countries.”

Because our R&D investments are not necessarily tied to requirements to deploy and commercialize new technologies in the U.S., domestic manufacturing opportunities, along with the benefits it can create for workers and communities, are lost. A very relevant example of where we see this missing piece in the innovation cycle: profound transition to electric vehicles, which he described as an inevitable market shift. China and the European Union have made strategic investments in building out the EV supply chain, but the U.S. is failing to keep pace. “If we get the conditions right, with strong labor standards… we can make sure the benefits are widely shared,” Walsh added, “but we are not going to rebuild prosperity if U.S. workers don’t reap the benefits.”

4. This is a game-changing moment for climate innovation that we have to seize.

At the federal level, the U.S. has stepped up on climate action over the past year — from being on the sidelines of global climate negotiations to rejoining the Paris Agreement and pledging to cut emissions by 50-52% by 2030. But as Lt Gov Barnes pointed out, “now we have to be sure to deliver on it. We lost credibility in the conversation in the last few years — now we have to regain that trust.”

The roughly $1 trillion investment in transformative clean energy and climate solutions currently proposed in Congress could accelerate much-needed progress on our climate targets. However, as the discussion emphasized, emissions are not the only goal on the line here — this is a moment to lift up communities across the country and equip U.S. workers to compete in what could be the most important global economic race of our generation.

“We are in a make-or-break moment,” urged Walsh. “We have the ability to pass climate-forward, pro-worker, pro-community budget legislation.” He added, “If you’re not talking to your friends in Congress about passing it, we must. This is it.”

And by following the examples and lessons learned on how to effectively partner with communities, ensuring equitable ownership of these solutions and building a stronger manufacturing sector that benefits workers, the U.S. can meet this moment head on.

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