For Energy and Climate, Don’t Forget About One of America's Most Important Resources
The topic of climate change – and what we can do about it – rightly dominates public discourse today as a central issue no party or business leader can ignore. Exit polls in New Hampshire last month showed 25% of Democratic voters in the state valued climate change as their top issue; other polls confirmed similar sentiments among primary voters in Iowa and Nevada. Reflective of the times, Republicans have also demonstrated real interest in advancing various climate-related bills as key voting blocs within the party are increasingly supportive of action.
As the conversation continues to evolve, innovators from the Clean Energy Business Network -- a group of business leaders across all 50 states -- are back in Washington, D.C. for the second year in a row to highlight how American ingenuity can play a role in addressing climate change. We decided to return to the nation's capital because now, more than ever, policymakers are eager to learn how they can support the small businesses powering the clean energy economy.
Semplastics, a small, family-owned materials and fabrication business from Florida, is one of the 30 plus entrepreneurs who will be meeting with members of Congress and the administration this week.
Like other members of CEBN, the company is creating some ingenious products with the potential to radically reduce future carbon emissions and boost economic growth. Thanks to partnerships with the National Energy and Technology Laboratory (NETL) and two small Department of Energy research grants, Semplastics is working to repurpose coal into high-performance and fire-retardant roofing tiles. Commercializing the tiles would help to sequester carbon and increase job growth in Appalachia and other coal-producing regions in need of new economic opportunities.
Semplastics has a bright future ahead of it, but there are thousands of other nascent energy and climate-related technologies and companies that may never break through steep economic, regulatory, and commercial barriers. Without the right mix of public and private sector support, many companies lack the capital, technical assistance, and resources to turn innovative gambles into market-ready products with tangible economic and environmental impacts.
It's time we acknowledge innovation, like our national parks and coastlines, is a critical American resource that we must constantly protect and nurture. Neglecting to do so will make innovation an increasingly scarce commodity.
There are many steps we can take to enhance our supply of innovation. We should start by raising federal funding for the national labs, research grant programs like Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR), the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E), and key technical offices across Department of Energy and other federal agencies. There is no reason the United States, a global leader, historical innovator, and economic powerhouse should rank 14th in the world for public energy R&D spending as a percent of GDP (China is ranked fourth, by the way).
Advancing innovative climate solutions will also require constantly improving the federal programs that can to help facilitate, drive, and contribute to technological progress in the private sector. It will also necessitate updating the policy frameworks underpinning our energy infrastructure network to reflect 21st century dynamics and fully unleash the power of innovation.
Thankfully, there are already some members of Congress who understand the immense value investments in energy innovation can generate.
Under the leadership of Senators Murkowski and Manchin, the Senate is currently debating a package of 50 plus high-impact energy bills and innovation initiatives. Passing the package, known as the American Energy Innovation Act, would boost support for a variety of critical technologies. It would also renew and expand ARPA-E and other successful energy programs.
Others, like Senators Rubio and Cardin, have championed the importance of small business grants to innovators and been strong advocates for reauthorization and reform of the Small Business Act. Leaders of the Senate and House Appropriations Committees have also indicated their strong support; last year they negotiated bipartisan, bicameral funding legislation to provide robust funding for energy programs—progress that must continue in the upcoming appropriations cycle.
We hope our hard work this week will help show other lawmakers that advancing these kinds of priorities is not only important, but integral to the success of American innovators and the future quality of our environment. Ignoring one of the country's most precious resources will only make it increasingly difficult to scale decarbonizing technologies and grow our economy.
Lynn Abramson is President of the Clean Energy Business Network, the small business voice for the clean energy economy.
Bill and Sue Easter are Co-Founders of Semplastics, a small manufacturing business in Ovieda, Florida