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Can Conservatives Support Clean Energy Innovation Policy?

Steven Hayward, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and co-author of the “Post-Partisan Power” report, has a new article in The Weekly Standard that makes the conservative case for a federal energy innovation agenda.  Hayward’s independent analysis is a must-read for conservatives advocates and indicates a strong bipartisan consensus point for energy policy reform.

Is there a way for government to adopt an energy policy that avoids wasting money on inferior energy sources and unproductive laboratory research and that could gain bipartisan support in today’s bitterly polarized climate? There just might be.

Hayward summarizes the report’s recommendations, including $25 billion per year of federal investment in clean energy science, education, R&D, and procurement designed to drive down the price of low-carbon energy technologies.  Anticipating potential concerns from fellow conservatives, Hayward writes:

No doubt critics will say this level of state involvement in promoting technological innovation doesn’t sound very Reaganite, but they are wrong. Just as Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative was intended to be a long-range game changer rather than just another weapons system, this energy strategy is intended to reestablish the United States as the global leader in energy innovation and potentially upend the geopolitics of energy.

He continues:


I share all of the general reservations and skepticism about
government-sponsored research and development. Yet for all of the boondoggles one can rightly point to, such as Jimmy Carter’s hapless Synfuels Corporation, there is also a record of government-sponsored technology achievement that it would be churlish to overlook. The lesson is that government investments succeed not when they are blanket subsidies but when they are targeted to specific outcomes, such as developing computers to enable rocket systems, building a communications network to survive a nuclear attack, or creating increasingly efficient and powerful jet engines. These public investments and supporting regulatory changes paid off handsomely in personal computers, the Internet, and both commercial air travel and the gas turbines used in modern natural gas power plants. Government-sponsored research in biochemistry has played a substantial role in the development of new pharmaceuticals.

Earlier this summer, my conservative colleague Clifton Yin and I made similar points in an op-ed called “A Bipartisan Strategy for Energy Leadership.”  Clifton previously worked for the American Enterprise Institute and served as one of the youngest delegates for John McCain in the 2008 election.  We wrote:

Of course, Republicans tend to shy away from any proposal to increase government spending, but clean energy is a strategic national resource with too much risk for the private sector to bear alone. Republicans should also remember the strong conservative precedent for these types of public investment. President Eisenhower oversaw the initial science R&D surge after Sputnik and the construction of interstate highways. President Reagan made enormous investments in military technology to maintain U.S. competitiveness.

More recently, it was Newt Gingrich who in 2008 called for the National Science Foundation’s budget to triple from $6 to $18 billion to foster green technologies. Last year, Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN) introduced the Clean Energy Act of 2009, which would invest $750 million annually for ten years in clean energy RD&D and provide $100 billion in clean energy loan guarantees. And Senator Richard Lugar’s Practical Energy and Climate Plan of 2010 would similarly offer $36 billion in loans for nuclear power plants.

Indeed, federal investment in strategic technologies, industries, and infrastructure has enjoyed bipartisan support since World War II.  Hayward concludes:

There are no guarantees that this framework will deliver quickly or be free of failures along the way. (To the contrary, if there are few failures it will mean the program isn’t bold enough.) But with China committing as much as $740 billion to basic energy research over the next decade and South Korea dedicating 1 percent of its GDP for the same purpose, the United States risks being a laggard in the energy sector. And that’s more than just an economic risk.

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