A Moonshot Energy Innovation Initiative Could Help Rebuild Our Economy

By Andy Barnes & John Buttles
October 01, 2020

The deep impacts COVID-19 is having on humanity have prompted many to compare the situation to a war. The analogy fits. The war against the virus is one with tragically mounting casualties, mass mobilization, a frontline, and an enemy.

But one wartime similarity often goes unmentioned: innovation.

Necessity is the mother of all invention, and necessity peaks in wartime. Indeed, WWII and the Cold War have left indelible marks on how we talk about innovation: The Manhattan Project and The Moonshot.

A massive innovation effort is underway right now to develop a COVID-19 vaccine. But as the response shifts from immediate relief to long-term economic recovery, it is important we avoid losing momentum in efforts to innovate and invest in our future. More than ever, it is critical to continue fueling the innovation engine that will help rebuild a stronger, more resilient nation—putting Americans back to work today and ensuring jobs far into the future. 

Much like WWII, we are facing enemies on multiple fronts. While we fight the war on COVID-19, we are also facing growing threats of climate change. Recent fires, derechos, hurricanes, and floods have ravaged communities across the nation. Innovation can help here as well. We already have a broad portfolio of clean energy solutions to tackle this challenge, but we need far more ammunition. An International Energy Agency report from July projected 75% of CO2 reductions required to reach net-zero emissions by 2050 would come from technologies in development stages. These reductions can help prevent future extreme climate events.

In the wake of the Great Recession, Congress passed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which injected substantial investment into research, development, and deployment of clean energy technologies. The Department of Energy also established the SunShot Initiative, which set the goal of reducing the cost of solar energy to $0.06 per kWh by 2020. Some called the target overly ambitious, but the solar industry hit the goal three years early, and DOE revised its goal to $0.03 per kWh by 2030.

These investments—coupled with tax policies that fostered private sector innovation, learning by doing, economies of scale, and unlocking of capital streams—have led to dramatic drops in the cost of clean energy technologies like wind, solar, LEDs, and electric vehicles. Much of this progress can be attributed to innovations funded in part or in whole by Uncle Sam.

Prior to the COVID-19 crisis, renewable energy, energy efficiency, and natural gas represented the growth sectors of the U.S. economy and employed 3.2 million Americans. Wind and solar accounted for the fastest-growing occupations in America, and energy companies reported greater demand than availability of skilled workers. But in the throes of COVID-19, nearly half a million clean energy workers remain unemployed, wiping out the workforce gains in 2019.

As we celebrate National Clean Energy Week, two bills pending before Congress would help lay the groundwork for a clean energy future. This legislation can put laid-off clean energy workers, and millions more Americans, back to work by bolstering federal research, development, and deployment to restart our nation’s innovation engine. This means leveraging federal spending to foster entrepreneurs across this nation who are developing new energy solutions that will power our economy. Companies like Texas Wind Tower are currently working with DOE support on these solutions. The firm is developing very tall wind turbine technology to capture higher wind speeds and generate more electricity.

In the Senate, the American Energy Innovation Act contains many provisions that would modernize programs to support energy innovation in key sectors like batteries and carbon capture and storage. A recent bipartisan agreement has breathed new life into this bill. A bipartisan majority in the House recently passed the Clean Economy Jobs and Innovation Act, which offers similar provisions to advance our nation’s energy innovation agenda. These bills represent a viable path forward to a bicameral energy bill for the first time since 2007. 

Recent reports from Columbia University and Breakthrough Energy, note that economic impacts of innovation are not just realized in the long-term, but also have an immediate, short-term impact. Columbia researchers estimate public energy innovation investments create an additional new job at roughly half the cost of other types of federal investments. Their data projects that boosting energy R&D to just 0.1% of GDP would create 1 million new jobs. Meanwhile, Breakthrough estimates federal energy R&D outlays in 2018 contributed 112,100 jobs, $9 billion in labor income, $14 billion toward gross domestic product, and $2.8 billion in federal and state tax revenue, while supporting good-paying middle-class jobs. With support from Congress, we can bring back our economy stronger and cleaner than ever before.

In 2015, 24 countries pledged to double energy innovation funding by 2020. These countries are meeting this week for the fifth year, and the group is only 55% of the way to its goal. The U.S. can and should lead in the energy innovation fight to help close this gap. It is these battles that will help win the war on multiple fronts—public health, economic, and climate crises. Americans have the ingenuity and grit to do what it takes to win. It’s time to pony up on energy innovation and make a down payment on a better future.


Andy Barnes is Director of Policy and Communications at the Clean Energy Business Network, which serves as the small business voice for the clean energy economy.

John Buttles is President of Texas Wind Tower, which develops tall wind tower and energy storage technologies for renewable energy production.

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