Clean Energy Innovation in the US: insights for the UK (part 1)

Written by Anna Watson

Innovation Narratives

I have spent the last few days representing UKERC at the ARPA-E Innovation Summit, a gathering of over 2000 people spanning the US energy innovation system.

ARPA-E is the Advanced Research Projects Agency- Energy, a publicly funded innovation organisation that supports risky energy projects, ranging from prototype to full scale deployment and commercialisation.

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The organisation has an impressive track record. Since 2009, ARPA-E has spent $2bn supporting over 800 projects. These projects have gone on to receive $2.9bn in follow-on funding and resulted in the formation of 76 companies.

In this first post I consider three things that struck me about the US innovation narrative as a European researcher looking in. In my second post I will explore potential lessons from ARPA-E for UK energy innovation organisations.

Gaining insights into the energy innovation narratives in the US has been invaluable in understanding the positioning of ARPA-E as integral for driving national security and economic growth. This has given it bipartisan appeal and meant that many innovations will benefit incumbent industries.

1. Close alignment with the defence sector

ARPA-E was modelled on DARPA – a Department of Defence (DoD) innovation organisation that played an integral role in developing key innovations including the internet, Siri and the Cloud.

The Department of Energy (DoE) is still explicitly involved in the nuclear weapon complex of the US, with over 50% of its budget relating to this role. The DoD is also the largest energy user in the US, which makes energy innovation a matter of national security.

This was highlighted at the summit through the delivery of the keynote speech by the US’s second highest-ranking military officer General Paul J. Selva. He discussed that at present it takes over a gallon and a half of fuel to provide a gallon of fuel to troops on the ground, meaning that any innovation that improves operational efficiency or sustainability is urgently required – ranging from lighter battery packs to portable small modular nuclear reactors.

I spoke with the CEO of Windlift who has worked with military bases to develop rapidly deployable wind power technology, with the added benefit of using radar to survey the surrounding area. He explained the importance of having a dedicated and powerful customer like the DoD.

Given that the UK doesn’t explicitly acknowledge the link between the nuclear industry and national security, I found this very interesting. Providing a resilient Republican narrative when belief in climate change cannot be taken for granted has been beneficial in enabling ARPA-E to continue to receive funding.

The strong public procurement by the DoD for energy innovation has also provide a market for a broad range of the outputs.

2. Strength of the fossil fuel narrative

The second keynote was delivered by a Commissioner from the Railroad Commission of Texas, who stated that the US should continue to use coal as if they stopped then it would be cheaper for China to purchase. He highlighted that innovation should therefore primarily be focused on developing efficient natural gas technologies that can be sold by the US to China.

Such statements further proved to highlight the difference in ideologies between the UK and the US. When one considers that Texas has enough crude oil reserves to fill more than 1 million Olympic swimming pools and has become equivalent to the 6th largest GDP built on fossil fuel extraction, it is unsurprising that such narratives still dominate.

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3. Strong focus on nuclear power and SMRs

The keynote opening panel at the Summit focused on nuclear innovation, which aims to provide flexibility to the low carbon power source comprising 52% of the US’s energy use. It of course also echoes strong DoD involvement and potential application.

This involves creating an ecosystem of different sized fission plants, where heat and electrons will be used to generate electricity as well as produce clean hydrogen, desalinate water and provide a feedstock for heat intensive industries.

Nu-Scale CEO, Carlos Reyes, discussed that the first commercial scale SMR will be online and operational by 2026 after beginning construction in 2022. This has required $1.3bn in funding so far, to bring the technology up to the highest levels of resilience and safety.

The UK is also aiming for the deployment of SMR technology by 2030, however traction currently appears to be lower with no commercial application expected until at least 2028.

In both instances it appears that research with the communities expected to host these technologies is largely absent.

More about US innovation system funding can be found in outcomes of this recent workshop

This blog was originally published by UKERC.

Anna Watson is a EPSRC-funded research student at the Science Policy Research Unit (SPRU) in affiliation with the UK Energy Research Centre.

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