Research


Breakthrough's Research Program provides an empirical basis for the Institute's mission. Our rigorous, data-driven, and original analyses are in service of accelerating the transition to a future where all the world's inhabitants can enjoy secure, free, and prosperous lives on an ecologically vibrant planet. 

  • Energy
  • Conservation
  • Innovation

Report

Adaptation for a High-Energy Planet

A Climate Pragmatism Project

March 28, 2016

Even as adaptation has more recently gained mainstream acceptance as an unavoidable response to rising global temperatures, it continues to be a sideshow to the main event of limiting greenhouse gas emissions through international climate negotiations. This misses enormous opportunities for effective action to reduce human suffering due to climate and weather disasters, and to lay a stable foundation for cooperative international efforts to address both climate adaptation and mitigation.

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Peer-Reviewed Paper

Historical Construction Costs of Global Nuclear Power Reactors

February 2, 2016

In Breakthrough’s 2013 report, How to Make Nuclear Cheap, we argued that nuclear needed innovative new designs to become radically cheaper, able to displace fossil fuels. But in the aftermath of that report, we uncovered a large disagreement about why nuclear power became expensive. In particular, many critics have claimed that cost escalation and “negative learning” are intrinsic to nuclear power.

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Report

Nature Unbound

Decoupling for Conservation

September 9, 2015

Over the last two centuries, the growing human population and rising consumption have caused widespread loss of wildlife and natural habitats. Existing conservation approaches based on protected areas and ecosystem services have been unable to stem this loss at the global scale.

There are also many trends that suggest hope for the future, however. Technological progress is increasingly decoupling environmental harm from economic growth. A new Breakthrough Institute report, titled Nature Unbound: Decoupling for Conservation, offers a new framework for global conservation that focuses on accelerating the technological and economic processes that drive decoupling.

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Report

Lessons from the Shale Revolution

A Report on the Conference Proceedings

August 10, 2015

Since 2011, Breakthrough Institute has sought to understand the origins of the shale revolution, primarily for environmental reasons. Cheap shale gas has allowed the US power sector to move away from coal, which has in turn reduced US carbon emissions by more than 10 percent between 2005 and 2013. What lessons could the shale revolution have for future energy transitions, whether to solar, nuclear power, electric cars, or fuel cells? How can public and private energy innovation efforts achieve future technological breakthroughs that are similarly disruptive?

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Report

High-Energy Innovation: The Case of Shale Gas

The Global Quest for Natural Gas

December 16, 2014

The recent boom in natural gas production in the United States, brought about through technical innovations in the recovery of natural gas from previously inaccessible shale rock formations and land-use policies that favor private development, has helped lower electricity costs and benefitted the petrochemical and manufacturing industries. Even more significantly, it has contributed to a drop in US carbon dioxide emissions to their lowest levels in two decades, as inexpensive natural gas accelerates the closure of aging coal plants around the country.

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Report

High-Energy Innovation

A Climate Pragmatism Project

December 8, 2014

Clean energy innovation and decarbonization efforts will be overwhelmingly concentrated in rapidly industrializing countries, where demand for energy is high and deployment opportunities are broad, says a new report from a group of 12 energy scholars.

High-Energy Innovation evaluates four clean energy technologies – shale gas, carbon capture and storage, nuclear, and solar – and finds that, in all cases, industrializing countries are making significant investments and leveraging international collaborations in order to make energy cleaner, cheaper, and more reliable. 

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Report

Lighting, Electricity, Steel

Energy Efficiency Backfire in Emerging Economies

October 6, 2014

Countries that expect to consume much more energy will likely experience higher levels of energy efficiency rebound, concludes a new Breakthrough report, released today. Rebound is the phenomenon in which energy efficiency measures increase demand for energy, which diminishes expected energy savings. 

Lighting, Electricity, Steel: Energy Efficiency Rebound in Emerging Economies presents three historical case studies of when energy efficiency rebound occurred: lighting from 1700 to present, electricity generation in 20th century America, and iron and steel production from 1900 onward.

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Peer-Reviewed Paper

New Paper Challenges Metrics of Ecological Overshoot

Ecological Footprint Found to Be "Misleading"

November 5, 2013

Is humanity really using 1.5 Earths? That is the central finding of the Ecological Footprint (EF), a widely cited global sustainability indicator used by the United Nations and major NGOs around the world to estimate the impact of human activity on the biosphere. But a paper published today in PLoS Biology finds the method behind the Ecological Footprint "so misleading as to preclude its use in any serious scientific or policy context."

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Report

How to Make Nuclear Cheap

Safety, Readiness, Modularity, and Efficiency

July 7, 2013

Nuclear energy is at a crossroads. It supplies a substantial share of electricity in many developed economies — 19 percent in the United States, 35 percent in South Korea, 40 percent in Sweden, 78 percent in France — but these figures may decline as reactors built in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s retire. Meanwhile, developing countries are increasingly turning to nuclear to meet rapidly growing energy demand and to reduce pollution. China is currently building 28 reactors and has plans for dozens more; 11 are under construction in Russia, seven in India. Nevertheless, fossil fuels remain dominant worldwide, with coal the reigning king and natural gas production booming. The central challenge for nuclear energy, if it is to become a greater portion of the global electricity mix, is to become much cheaper.

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Report

Coal Killer

How Natural Gas Fuels the Clean Energy Revolution

June 25, 2013

Amid a flurry of regulations and political activism against coal plants, one phenomenon has proved the most effective in killing coal in the United States: the arrival of cheaper, cleaner energy. Natural gas fuels the clean energy revolution by displacing dirtier coal, lowering carbon emissions, providing a platform for deployment of lower-carbon energy technologies, and creating economic surpluses that can be directed towards energy innovation. And while questions have arisen in the last several years regarding the local and global environmental impacts of the shale revolution, a survey of the empirical literature reveals gas to be a highly favorable environmental alternative to coal.

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Report

Planetary Boundaries: A Review of the Evidence

June 11, 2012

The planetary boundaries hypothesis - embraced by United Nations bodies and leading nongovernmental organizations like Oxfam and WWF - has serious scientific flaws and is a misleading guide to global environmental management, according to a new report by the Breakthrough Institute. The hypothesis, which will be debated this month at the UN Earth Summit in Brazil, posits that there are nine global biophysical limits to human development. But after an extensive literature review and informal peer review by leading experts, the Breakthrough Institute has found the concept of "planetary boundaries" to be a poor basis for policy and for understanding local and global environmental challenges.

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Report

Beyond Boom and Bust: Report Overview

April 17, 2012

Despite robust growth and recent improvements in price and performance, a boom in US clean energy technology ("clean tech") sectors could now falter as federal clean energy spending declines sharply, according to a new report published today by some of the country's top energy analysts.

To both sustain clean energy growth and put the United States' clean tech sectors on an accelerated path to subsidy independence and global competitiveness, analysts at the Breakthrough Institute, Brookings Institution, and World Resources Institute counsel a thorough revamping of American clean energy policies to prioritize innovation and cost declines.

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Report

US Government Role in Shale Gas Fracking History: An Overview

March 2, 2012

The history behind the shale gas boom remained relatively unknown until late 2011, when researchers at the Breakthrough Institute conducted an extensive investigation revealing the role that federal agencies like the Department of Energy and the National Laboratories played in supporting gas industry experimentation with shale fracking.

Featured in the Washington Post and the President's 2012 State of the Union, this Breakthrough investigation enunciates again the crucial role that the federal government has always played in technological innovation.


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Report

A Clean Energy Deployment Administration: Unlocking Advanced Energy Innovation and Commercialization

December 6, 2011

In a series of policy briefs released last month by the Breakthrough Institute, we document the challenges faced by clean energy innovators and entrepreneurs working to bring advanced energy technologies from the lab to market and offer policy proposals for carrying nascent technologies across the clean energy "Valleys of Death." In particular, we offer detailed recommendations for the establishment of a Clean Energy Deployment Administration, or CEDA, a flexible, independent government financing entity which would use a diverse set of financing tools to bridge the Commercialization Valley of Death.

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Report

A National Clean Energy Testbeds Program: Using Public Lands to Accelerate Energy Innovation

December 6, 2011

In a series of policy briefs released last month by the Breakthrough Institute, we document the challenges faced by clean energy innovators and entrepreneurs working to bring advanced energy technologies from the lab to market and offer policy proposals for carrying nascent technologies across the clean energy "Valleys of Death." One detailed proposal offers recommendations for the establishment of a National Clean Energy Testbeds Program, or N-CET, which would employ public lands as dedicated demonstration sites for proving innovative energy technologies at scale.

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Report

Manufacturing Growth: Advanced Manufacturing and the Future of the American Economy

October 26, 2011

Stagnant and out-dated policy debates in Washington are the reason that advanced, high-tech products are mostly manufactured outside of the United States, according to a new paper jointly issued by two think tanks. The report, from the Breakthrough Institute and leading moderate think tank Third Way, argues that American manufacturing could experience a resurgence with a focus on complicated and technology-intensive manufacturing products.

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Report

Climate Pragmatism: Innovation, Resilience and No Regrets

July 25, 2011

Climate Pragmatism, a new policy report released July 26th by the Hartwell group, details an innovative strategy to restart global climate efforts after the collapse of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) process. This pragmatic strategy centers on efforts to accelerate energy innovation, build resilience to extreme weather, and pursue no regrets pollution reduction measures -- three efforts that each have their own diverse justifications independent of their benefits for climate mitigation and adaptation. As such, Climate Pragmatism offers a framework for renewed American leadership on climate change that's effectiveness, paradoxically, does not depend on any agreement about climate science or the risks posed by uncontrolled greenhouse gases.

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Report

Energy Emergence: Rebound and Backfire as Emergent Phenomena

February 17, 2011

There is a large expert consensus and strong evidence that below-cost energy efficiency measures drive a rebound in energy consumption that erodes much and in some cases all of the expected energy savings, concludes a new report by the Breakthrough Institute. "Energy Emergence: Rebound and Backfire as Emergent Phenomena" covers over 96 published journal articles and is one of the largest reviews of the peer-reviewed journal literature to date.

The findings of the new report are significant because governments have in recent years relied heavily on energy efficiency measures as a means to cut greenhouse gases. "I think we have to have a strong push toward energy efficiency," said President Obama recently. "We know that's the low-hanging fruit, we can save as much as 30 percent of our current energy usage without changing our quality of life." While there is robust evidence for rebound in academic peer-reviewed journals, it has largely been ignored by major analyses, including the widely cited 2009 McKinsey and Co. study on the cost of reducing greenhouse gases.

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Report

Where Good Technologies Come From: Case Studies in American Innovation

December 10, 2010

Driving directions from your iPhone. The cancer treatments that save countless lives. The seed hybrids that have slashed global hunger. A Skype conversation while flying on a Virgin Airlines jet across the continent in just five hours. Where did these everyday miracles come from?

As soon as the question is asked we know to suspect that the answer is not as simple as Apple, Amgen, or General Electric. We might recall something about microchips and the Space Race, or know that the National Institutes of Health funds research into new drugs and treatments.

But most of us remain unaware of the American government's support for technology and innovation. Our gratitude at being able to video chat with our children from halfway around the world (if we feel gratitude at all) is directed at Apple, not the Defense Department. When our mother's Neupogen works to fight her cancer, we thank Amgen, not NIH or NSF.

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Post-Partisan Power: The Bipartisan History of American Innovation

October 12, 2010

This is an excerpt from the white paper, Post-Partisan Power, authored by scholars at the American Enterprise Institute, Brookings Institution, and Breakthrough Institute. A report overview and introduction can be found here.


The Bipartisan History of American Prosperity

Throughout American history, strategic government investments in areas like education, technology, infrastructure, and energy catalyzed the entrepreneurship and innovation that has paved the way for so many of the great American technological and economic successes of the 20th century. In the words of conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks, the American story is one of "limited but energetic governments that used aggressive federal power to promote growth."

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Post-Partisan Power: A Summary of Recommendations

October 12, 2010

Post-Partisan Power Thumbnail.png

It is time to hit the reset button on energy policy, according to scholars with American Enterprise Institute, Brookings Institution and the Breakthrough Institute, who are today releasing a new report, "Post-Partisan Power," which calls for revamping America's energy innovation system with the aim of making clean energy cheap.

The new report calls for increasing federal innovation investment from roughly $4 today to $25 billion annually, and using military procurement, new, disciplined deployment incentives, and public-private hubs to achieve both incremental improvements and breakthroughs in clean energy technologies. The authors point to America's long-history of bi-partisan support for innovation.

Writes David Leonhardt in today's New York Times, "the death of cap and trade doesn't have to mean the death of climate policy. The alternative revolves around much more, and much better organized, financing for clean energy research. It's an idea with a growing list of supporters, a list that even includes conservatives -- most of whom opposed cap and trade."

Mark Muro of Brookings tells Politico the proposal's four parts "are broadly popular, provide a very broad and appealing American vision of economic transformation and are certainly far more doable than a global pricing system at this point." Added Steve Hayward of American Enterprise Institute, "The entire climate and energy agenda that we've been talking about for several years now has hit a dead end, so it's time to hit the reset button."

Click here to download the full report. Read on for a summary of recommendations and other resources.

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Report

Post-Partisan Power

October 12, 2010

It is time to hit the reset button on energy policy, according to scholars with American Enterprise Institute, Brookings Institution and the Breakthrough Institute, who are today releasing a new report, "Post-Partisan Power," which calls for revamping America's energy innovation system with the aim of making clean energy cheap.

The new report calls for increasing federal innovation investment from roughly $4 today to $25 billion annually, and using military procurement, new, disciplined deployment incentives, and public-private hubs to achieve both incremental improvements and breakthroughs in clean energy technologies. The authors point to America's long-history of bipartisan support for innovation.

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The Power to Compete: Benchmarking the Kerry-Lieberman American Power Act on Clean Energy Innovation

June 9, 2010

A new policy brief released today by the Breakthrough Institute and Americans for Energy Leadership provides the first independent analysis of how the Kerry-Lieberman American Power Act would impact U.S. competitiveness in the global clean energy industry, benchmarking its provisions against key policy components for technological innovation and industrial development in the low-carbon power and transportation sectors.

The policy brief, titled "The Power to Compete: Analysis of Key Clean Energy Technology and Competitiveness Provisions in the Kerry-Lieberman American Power Act of 2010," assesses the proposal's key technology provisions, including research and innovation, manufacturing, and domestic market demand -- the central pillars of a national clean energy competitiveness strategy -- as well as supportive mechanisms in infrastructure, workforce development, and industry cluster formation.

Download Full Briefing (PDF)

Federal energy policy has become a primary U.S. national priority in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and amidst the ongoing Senate debate over comprehensive climate and energy reform. The May 2010 release of the Kerry-Lieberman American Power Act (APA) currently represents the flagship proposal for comprehensive reform in the Senate, and its future within the context of broader energy legislation will be determined in the weeks ahead.

The renewed urgency for energy reform arrives among growing national concern that the United States is falling behind its competitors in the growing clean energy industry. Thus, in addition to reducing emissions of greenhouse gases, one of the core objectives of the Kerry-Lieberman proposal is to enhance U.S. competitiveness in clean energy technology markets. As Senator Kerry declared in the opening of the APA release press conference, "The bill that we are introducing today and revealing today, the American Power Act, will restore America's economy and reassert our position as a global leader in clean energy technology."

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Strengthening Clean Energy Competitiveness: Opportunities for America COMPETES Reauthorization

June 2, 2010

In response to numerous reports documenting a sharp decline in U.S. clean energy competitiveness, experts at three leading U.S. think tanks have issued a new policy report calling on Congress to strengthen U.S. innovation and competitiveness policies in this key industry through the reauthorization of the America COMPETES Act. The report, "Strengthening Clean Energy Competitiveness: Opportunities for America COMPETES Reauthorization," was released today by the Breakthrough Institute, the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF), and the Brookings Institution Metropolitan Policy Program.

Congress first passed this flagship competitiveness legislation in 2007 in response to concerns that the United States was losing its ability to compete economically with other nations. On May 28, 2010, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the COMPETES reauthorization by a vote of 262-150 and the bill is set to be debated in the Senate. The reauthorization comes at a time when the United States seeks new sources of growth in a fiscally constrained environment. The clean energy market is one such growth industry--expected to surpass $600 billion by 2020--but the U.S. faces unprecedented global competition.

In "Rising Tigers, Sleeping Giant," an authoritative report on international clean energy competitiveness, the Breakthrough Institute and ITIF recently demonstrated how U.S. leadership on a number of clean energy competitiveness metrics has declined in the last decade. The United States' historic lead in energy innovation is slipping as other countries implement national innovation strategies. America now lags economic competitors in Asia and Europe in the manufacture of virtually all clean energy technologies. And the U.S. lags its economic rivals in preparing its future workforce with critical science, technology, engineering and math education (STEM).

The new report argues that to regain leadership in the global clean energy market, the United States must prioritize major investments in clean energy technology and embrace bold new paradigms in clean energy education, innovation, and production and manufacturing policy.

"Meeting the aggressive challenges to U.S. clean energy leadership will require both increased funding for critical education and technology programs as well as new ideas for how the federal government can foster innovation in the clean energy industry, from basic research to full-scale commercialization," said Mark Muro, Director of Policy at the Brookings Institution Metropolitan Policy Project.
 

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Report

Hartwell Paper: A New Approach on Global Climate Policy

May 13, 2010

Global climate policy should be radically overhauled in the wake of the failure of the United Nations process, an international group of 14 climate policy experts and scientists argue in a new paper. The Kyoto-Copenhagen focus on national emissions targets and timetables was bound to fail because it proposed a single over-arching framework to deal with a "wickedly' complex problem. Instead what's needed is a focus on expanding access to energy for the poor, quickly reducing non-CO2 climate forcings, and adaptation to changing climate.

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Report

Rising Tigers, Sleeping Giant: Asian Nations Set to Dominate Clean Energy Race by Out-Investing US

November 18, 2009

"Rising Tigers, Sleeping Giant: Asian Nations Set to Dominate Clean Energy Race by Out-Investing the United States," a new report released today by the Breakthrough Institute and Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, is the first to comprehensively benchmark the competitive positions of the United States and key Asian challengers -- China, Japan and South Korea -- in the global clean energy race.

The report examines the competitive position of each nation in core clean energy technologies, including solar, wind, and nuclear power, carbon capture and storage, advanced vehicles and batteries, and high-speed rail, as well as the government strategies each nation hopes will strengthen its position in the global clean technology sector. The report also offers recommendations for U.S. federal policymakers for regaining U.S. competitiveness.

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Fast, Clean, and Cheap

Cutting Global Warming's Gordian Knot

February 5, 2008

In January 2008, the Harvard Law and Policy Review published “Fast, Clean and Cheap," which argues that the vast price gap between fossil fuels and clean energy sources combines with public resistance to higher energy prices to create a fundamental constraint on the efficacy of carbon pricing to drive emissions reductions everywhere in the world. 

This dynamic creates a “Gordian Knot” for policymakers focused on pollution regulation. If they price pollution too low, firms will just pass the higher energy prices along to consumers and invest little to nothing in clean energy, efficiency, or conservation. But if policymakers set the price too high, higher energy prices will trigger a voter backlash that will result in the repeal or non-enforcement of regulations and a discrediting of climate policy.

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