For a long time ‘clean’ and ‘green’ marked the forward trend in the energy industry. Then came the quest for ‘smart’ energy. And now ‘innovation’ is the buzzword.
It’s easy to see why. As Americans, we believe our ability to innovate sets us apart in today’s international market. Sure China can manufacture computers and cell phones more quickly and cheaply, but we came up with Google and iPhones in the first place.
The energy industry offers a lot of opportunity for US innovators, given our aging grid, quest for alternatives to fossil fuels, and our glimpse into the possibilities of a virtual, democratized grid that gives consumers more control over their energy use and production.
But will energy innovation help the US job market? Or will the products be conceived here but be manufactured elsewhere?
Siemens U.S. CEO Eric Spiegel offers some interesting thinking in a recent piece: “Where the Jobs Are: Higher Technology Manufacturing.” He takes issue with the idea that US manufacturing is doomed.
Such thinking wrongly assumes that the manufactured products of the future, like those of today, will be commodities, “the kind that could be built of equal quality, with equal technology, anywhere in the world,” Spiegel wrote. Blue jeans are his example.
He said that if innovation delivers, tomorrow’s products will be more high-end and require “skilled workers, precision assembly, intensive research, and complex technology,” the kind of thing the US does well.
Many new energy products, like smart grid technologies and wind turbines, require skilled manufacturing. Another, he points out, is the high efficiency natural gas turbine that Siemens builds in North Carolina. If the US remains an innovation leader, more of these high-end manufacturing jobs will make their way here, according to Spiegel.
But he isn’t Pollyanna about the US’ economic future. Sure, high-end energy manufacturing is occurring in the US, but it’s happening elsewhere as well: Europe, Brazil and parts of Asia. They too are innovating.
So the US has no reason to be overly confident about its innovation economy. Well aware of the intense competition, the federal government, states, universities and others are trying to create a more favorable climate for innovators. Below are a few ways that’s happening. I welcome readers to add to the list in the comments section of this blog. With the exception of the NYSERDA program, all of these were announced this week.
The US Department of Energy is offering $12 million to speed solar energy innovation from the lab to the marketplace through the federal SunShot Incubator program, with applications due April 9th.
Connecticut Governor Dan Malloy said in his mid-term budget address that the state will make $250 million available for high tech innovators.
The Massachusetts Clean Energy Center awarded $120,000 in clean energy research grants for early stage investigation into energy efficient fibers, microalgae for biofuels, and electrolytes for energy storage.
A five-year $469 million program is underway at the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) to foster innovation in energy-related technology and market development.
The American Chemistry Council has launched a campaign to foster a national energy strategy, and also is making known chemistry’s role in energy breakthroughs. Chemistry has helped bring about products that save 10.9 quadrillion Btus of energy annually, enough to power up to 56 million households or up to 135 million vehicles each year, cutting $85 billion in energy costs annually, according to an ACC study.
Stay-tuned for a major energy innovation grant announcement from the University of Pittsburgh.
Elisa Wood is a long-time energy writer whose work appears in many of the industry’s top magazines and newsletters. She is publisher of the Energy Efficiency Markets podcast and newsletter.