Each summer, Breakthrough Generation fellows work on group research projects, many of which become published reports that are disseminated to policy makers and the media. Listed here are some prominent examples, followed by a full list of each year's projects.
Published in July 2013, How to Make Nuclear Cheap: Safety, Readiness, Modularity, and Efficiency thoroughly assesses nine advanced nuclear reactor designs, from high-temperature gas reactors to fusion, and finds four factors that will most likely prove determinative in achieving any significant cost declines. Cited by the Washington Post and TIME, the report concludes that policy makers, investors, and entrepreneurs should pursue reactors models that are inherently safe, utilize existing supply chains, designed modularly, and have high thermal efficiency. The foundation of the report is research undertaken during the 2012 Breakthrough Generation summer fellowship, which analyzed the economics of nuclear power historically, tracked down information on advanced nuclear designs, and conducted interviews with nuclear energy academics and commercial developers.
Published in April 2012 by scholars at the Breakthrough Institute, the Brookings Institution, and the World Resources Institute. "Beyond Boom and Bust" documents the federal spending cliff faced by clean energy markets over 2009-2014, and offers a set of recommendations to strengthen American clean energy policy, improve the national energy innovation system, and reorient clean tech deployment incentives to prioritize cost reductions and performance improvements. The widely acclaimed report, which was endorsed by the New York Times and the Washington Post, was the product of 2011 Breakthrough Generation research cataloguing the programs and expenditure levels targeting clean tech in the United States and several European nations. This research offered the first comprehensive assessment of American clean tech spending, and has been cited by numerous experts to illustrate the inherent risks to clean energy markets that remain dependent on federal subsidies.
Published in November of 2009, "Rising Tigers, Sleeping Giant," was the first comprehensive assessment of the competitive position of the United States in the global clean energy race. It compared recent clean energy trends, as well as national clean energy policy frameworks, of China, Japan, South Korea, and the United States and found that the United States is lagging far behind its economic rivals in the new growth industry. The report began as a group project during the 2009 Breakthrough Generation fellowship.
The report was released in Washington, D.C. at an event hosted by the Senate Energy Committee. It was widely covered in the press both in the United States and abroad, including in the New York Times, Financial Times, and Wall St. Journal. You can read news stories about the report here.
Where Good Technologies Come From: Case Studies in American Innovation
Published in April of 2009 and re-released in December 2010 with additional research, "Where Good Technologies Come From" illuminates the stories behind the invention and diffusion of fifteen technologies that are everyday facets of our modern lives and offers a new look at government involvement in technological development. The report shows that public investment and active government support has been one of the greatest forces behind the nation's technology development and economic growth.
The report, which was a product of the 2008 Breakthrough Generation summer fellowship program, was recently cited in a Newsweek cover story, written by Fareed Zakaria, on innovation in America and around the world.
National Energy Education Act (NEEA)
Published in July 2008, the National Energy Education Act proposal--akin to the National Defense Education Act of 1958--calls for a comprehensive public investment package to train a new generation of innovators in strategic energy-related fields. The proposal was featured in op-eds published by the San Francisco Chronicle and the Baltimore Sun, and influenced the development of President Obama's RE-ENERGYSE energy education initiative.
Baleen, Blubber, Oil, and Trouble: The Role of Innovation, Scarcity, and Regulation in the 19th- and 20th- Century Whaling Industries Whales were hunted throughout most of the 19th and 20th centuries for their products, which were used to light lamps, manufacture margarine, and lubricate sewing machines. Yet, with the exception of a few countries, none of the former whaling nations are today engaged in whaling as a commercial activity. How did this shift from whale hunting to whale conservation occur? This case study looked into the adoption of whale product substitutes as an explanation for how we stopped killing the whales.
Case Studies in Electrification With almost 1.4 billion people currently lacking access to electricity, concerted efforts are underway to determine which strategies can most effectively deliver modern energy and its associated benefits to these people. This series of detailed case studies looked at how countries have achieved universal or near universal energy access in the past in order to understand the strategies and lessons that can be applied in countries currently lacking access.
Implications of Complexity on Innovation Over time, innovations seem to have become even more complex. In this project, fellows sought to understand the ways in which technological pathways in both the agriculture and energy sectors have affected how innovation is conducted. By understanding this, the fellows sought to offer a policy framework more suited to the particular nature and challenges of technological innovation today.
The De-watering of Economic Growth Economic growth has traditionally been associated with increased natural resource consumption, and freshwater is no exception. This exploratory study reviewed past research on historical trends and future forecasts of global, national, and sectoral-level water demand.
Trends in Nuclear Power Plant Construction Costs and Durations Recent studies have claimed to find "intrinsic negative learning" and inevitable cost escalation in the construction of nuclear power plants. Fellows created an expanded database to investigate the trends in construction costs and durations globally and comprehensively. The goal was to uncover a more complicated story than has been told and highlight other lesser-known trends in nuclear power.
Understanding Patterns in Energy Consumption Across dozens of long-term global energy scenarios, there exists a significant range in projected energy use through 2050. To understand the environmental impact of energy systems and to create policies to promote clean energy and expand energy access, a deeper understanding of energy consumption trends is required. Fellows created an analytical program that reads in global trade and energy production data and uses it to calculate energy consumption trends on a per country, per sector basis.
Mapping Global Energy Innovation Fellows investigated conventional models of technology transfer and found them lacking. As a corrective to the innovation pipeline fallacy, they cast developing markets as active agents in the creation, deployment, and adoption of new and improved technologies that would provide cheaper, better, and clean forms of energy. By investigating numerous case studies they found that innovation works best by leveraging existing systems, networks, and relationships, and by understanding that societal needs and preferences differ between countries and contexts.
Case Studies in Energy Efficiency Backfire National governments, the International Energy Agency, the United Nations Panel on Climate Change, and others have embraced efficiency as a primary means of addressing climate change through energy and emissions savings. But these projections rarely tell the full story. In eight case studies, fellows identified how energy efficiency has been used as an input for continued technological innovation, cost reduction, and increased energy use. In doing so, we bring the effectiveness of energy efficiency as an energy-savings measure into question, and highlight the importance of energy efficiency in creating new ways of using energy and diffusing energy services through society.
Vehicle Visions: Alternative Transportation Pathways In 2012 the US transportation sector was responsible for 70 percent of the nation’s total petroleum consumption and emitted 2 billion tons of carbon dioxide. In order to better understand future pathways to a low carbon transportation sector, fellows compared alternative vehicle technologies to conventional petroleum internal combustion technologies, with the goal of understanding the former’s "technological readiness.” Fellows found that the electrification of vehicles offers the most promising near-term path to decarbonization.
Deconstructing Soft Energy and Building the Case for a High Energy Planet The contrast between visions of a "soft energy world" – one that relies on a small amount of decentralized energy – and a "high energy planet" – one that embraces universal abundant, cheap, and clean energy services as a moral imperative was brought into sharp relief. Using a series of metrics, illustrations, and comparisons, fellows distinguished the fundamental differences of these two worldviews and began to lay the case for a high-energy planet.
Nutrient Pollution in Agriculture: Nitrogen and Phosphorous The relationship between human impacts on the environment and production of goods and services for human consumption is one that bears continued re-evaluation. In the environmental science literature, nitrogen and phosphorous are often treated as uniformly negative inputs to the environment, but it’s a more complicated story. Fellows investigated the efficiency of nitrogen and phosphorous use in agricultural settings. Using a new metric fellows found evidence that some countries have become more efficient at using N and P, suggesting a "decoupling" between agricultural production and harm to the environment.
The Land Footprint of Food: Scenarios for the 21st Century As the global population approaches nine billion and per-capita incomes rise, food demand is expected to increase considerably over the next few decades. Without higher productivity to match, this could lead to further losses of habitats and species. Fellows critically reviewed the existing literature on the relationship between food consumption and land use as a basis for constructing a model of the entire chain from food consumption to farm-level yields. Alongside climate change, we find the land-efficient provision of food is a central challenge for conservation in this century.
- Advanced Nuclear Tech Assesment Fellows completed a thorough survey of next generation nuclear technologies under development and put together a comprehensive guide. Through a series of interviews with nuclear developers and energy policy experts, fellows analyzed which technologies were the most mature and what significant technological hurdles exist.
- Political Feasibility of Nuclear Power Fellows created a set of historical case studies that asked why countries first develop nuclear power, looking at the post-WWII boom and recent trends in Asia. We found the main drivers were mainly economic and natural resource related. Through an extensive literature review and statistical analysis, fellows were able to identify important factors that drive or restrain development of nuclear power.
- Deployment 2.0 On the heels of Breakthrough's widely-acclaimed 2012 report "Beyond Boom and Bust," the Energy and Climate program set out to study and recommend policy reforms to major US clean tech deployment programs. In particular, Breakthrough Generation fellows evaluated federal tax policy support and state-level renewable portfolio standards regulation to identify best practices, highlight structural design weaknesses, and suggest reforms that optimize deployment policy's effects on technological innovation.
- Carbon Pricing Revisited Fellows examined the most recent literature on carbon pricing, both theoretical and empirical. The project was designed to evaluate carbon pricing's effects on global and national emissions mitigation; technological innovation; deployment of clean energy technologies; and government revenues and taxation policies.
- Scenarios for Global Agriculture Agriculture is the primary human use of land and the largest driver of habitat loss worldwide. At the same time, demand for food is set to nearly double by 2050. The way in which global agriculture responds to this increased demand is therefore a defining challenge for conservation this century. In this project, Generation fellows used FAO data to construct a set of scenarios for food demand and agricultural efficiency by 2050 in order to highlight key levers and estimate the scope for innovation and diffusion of agricultural technologies and best practice.
Growth Theories in Context There is little consensus among economists about the sources of long-term economic growth. The Generation fellow working with the Economic Growth and Innovation Program sought to put these disagreements in context by approaching the questions from a more sociological and historical perspective. The project involved a review of the most recent literature on the history of economic thought, which laid the groundwork for a critique of what is today the dominant ‘neoclassical’ paradigm.
- The Coming Clean Tech Crash researched the upcoming collapse of key clean energy policies and subsidies in the United States, United Kingdom, Spain, Italy, and Germany, to explore the likely impact on clean energy markets worldwide. This research led directly to the 2012 report "Beyond Boom and Bust."
- Smart Deployment: Clean Energy Deployment Policies to Accelerate Innovation and Cost Reductions Building on research by 2009 Fellows, this project examined case studies of historical cost reductions and innovation in microchips, jet engines, and solar panels in order to develop a set of key policy design criteria for clean energy deployment policies effective at driving cost reductions in maturing technologies. These criteria were then used to critically examine conventional clean energy policies, including feed-in tariffs, renewable portfolio standards or renewable energy obligations, and tax credit policies, and to develop more effective new policy recommendations.
- Power to the People or People to the Power? Effective Strategies for Energy Poverty Alleviation Building on research by 2010 Fellows, this project continued to explore effective strategies and policies to expand access to modern energy sources to the 1.3 billion people worldwide lacking electricity access and the more than 2 billion burning dirty and primitive fuels for cooking and heating.
- Is Carbon Pricing Really Economically Optimal? Alternative Policies for Efficient Decarbonization of Energy Supplies This project developed a simplified partial equilibrium economic model to explore the economic efficiency and deadweight economic losses incurred by carbon pricing and clean energy investment strategies to drive carbon reductions in energy sectors.
- Conservation in the Anthropocene looked at the evolution of theory and practice in nature conservation over the past few decades, tracing the rise of cost-benefit analysis and economic approaches, as well as analyzing arguments and evidence for global environmental sustainability. This work laid the foundation for the most recent addition to Breakthrough's repertoire, the Conservation Program.
- Energy Innovation Tracker (EIT) is a non-profit project whose goal is to provide accurate data on US energy innovation spending. The initial target of the project is spending by the federal government, and the project may expand to include other sources of innovation funding. A good summary of the work to date is here.
- Modeling Experience Curves a project to develop a two-factor "experience curve" model used to explore the public investments required to drive deployment and accelerate cost reductions for maturing clean energy technologies. This research informed the development of Breakthrough's recommendations for smarter clean energy deployment policies (as appearing in the 2010 report "Post-Partisan Power" and other publications).
- Case Studies in Energy Poverty Alleviation examined the national strategies to expand energy access pursued by China, India, Brazil, South Africa, and Ethiopia and developed key lessons for energy poverty alleviation policy. The research contributed to a forthcoming report from the Breakthrough Energy and Climate Program.
- Transforming Transportation a project to model how quickly low-carbon vehicle fuels and pathways can transform the on-road vehicle fleet in the United States. Included modeling and key background research on low-carbon fuel and vehicle options (including biofuels and plug-in and electric vehicles).
- Building a Green Economy a project to develop a new economic theory for creating a clean energy economy and understanding its implications for economic and energy policy. The research contributed to "Manufacturing Growth," a Breakthrough Institute report on the importance of advanced manufacturing, and influenced Breakthrough's ongoing work on the clean economy.
- Assessing the Threat of Terrorist Groups analyzed eight different groups from the Irish Republican Army to Lakshar-e-Taiba to determine their similarities and differences in terms of goals, strategies, and tactics. This work was used as a backgrounder for a major Science of Security report: "After Al Qaeda: Assessing the Threat of Hirabi Terrorism"
- Modernization as Liberation Theology the product of research by Breakthrough fellow Jerome Roos with co-founders Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus, is an original article which was later published under the title "Evolve" in the September/October 2011 issue of Orion Magazine and which will also feature in the second issue of the Breakthrough Journal. The research also provided input to a presentation made by Michael and Ted at the "Protecting Nature or Saving Creation? Ecological Conflicts and Religious Passions" conference in Venice in September 2010.
- Rising Tigers, Sleeping Giant The first comprehensive assessment of the competitive position of the United States in the global clean energy race. The report was unveiled at a briefing hosted by the staff of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee and was widely cited in the press, including the New York Times, Time Magazine, Financial Times, and the Wall Street Journal.
- Case Studies in Decarbonization: the Success of Direct Government Investment to Transform Energy Supply explored the historical efforts of Sweden, France, Japan, Germany, the United Kingdom, and the United States to transform energy supplies and improve energy efficiency to reduce fossil fuel use. The internal research report found that the most rapid decarbonization rates (in Sweden and France) were achieved via major public investments in the deployment of large-scale zero-carbon energy sources (e.g. nuclear and hydro power).
- Inside the Experience Curve: Accelerating Innovation and Cost Reductions in Energy Technologies researched key technology case studies to identify the causal factors behind the steady historical cost reductions known as "learning curves" or "experience curves." The internal research report has been foundational to the development of Breakthrough Institute's recommendations for smarter clean energy deployment policies (as appearing in the 2010 report "Post-Partisan Power" and other publications).
- Where Good Technologies Come From: Case Studies in American Innovation documents how the history of American innovation is one of active partnership between the public and private sectors, a partnership that has been key to developing breakthrough technologies that have driven generations of economic prosperity. The New York Times, Newsweek, and Atlantic Magazine each featured the report, and President Obama cited a number of its case studies in his 2011 State of the Union Address.
- National Energy Education Act Proposes a public investment initiative to train a new generation of innovators in strategic energy-related fields -- akin to the National Defense Education Act that trained scientists and engineers to win the space race and subsequently build the Internet Revolution. The proposal was featured in op-eds published by the San Francisco Chronicle and the Baltimore Sun and influenced the development of President Obama's RE-ENERGYSE energy education initiative.
- An Inspiring Truth a project to explore and develop effective communication strategies to inspire popular support for public investment in clean energy innovation. 2008 Fellows Molly Tsongas and Alisha Fowler went on to apply lessons learned from to project in the development of the Alliance for Climate Education's award winning live multimedia presentations on climate science and solutions.
- Campus InPower a national training program that helps student organizers create funding mechanisms to pay for large-scale sustainability projects on their campuses. Launched by 2008 Fellow Rachel Barge, the award winning project (recipient of a Clinton Global Initiative-University Award and Wild Grant) was incubated during the 2008 program with key program research and materials created by 2008 Fellow Joanna Calabrese.
- Communicating National Security Strategies 2008 Fellow Adam Rodriques assisted Breakthrough Institute staff on a project to develop a psychologically-resonant national security strategy for progressives. The research informed the development of Breakthrough Institute's unique "Science of Security" project.
- Fast, Clean, & Cheap: Cutting Global Warming's Gordian Knot a foundational energy innovation policy paper published by the Harvard Law and Policy Review. Breakthrough Institute research fellows and Breakthrough Generation co-founders Teryn Norris and Aden Van Noppen contributed key research and writing the paper.
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