A Deeper Climate Conversation

How Natural Gas and Nuclear Are Essential to Decarbonization

In the last month, the Breakthrough Institute has published two major reports that inject fresh and pragmatic perspective to the discourse on climate and energy. In contrast to the binary and simplistic conception of decarbonization that imagines a step-wise shift from fossil fuels to exclusively renewable technologies, we have aimed to simultaneously place the role of natural gas in the broader process of decarbonization and chart a new path for nuclear energy innovation. These two goals are neither replacements nor antecedents for continued support for renewable energy, but they do and should complicate dialogues over how best to transition to a high-energy, zero-carbon planet.

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How to Make Nuclear Cheap

Safety, Readiness, Modularity, and Efficiency

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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Beyond Boom and Bust: Report Overview

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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Bridging the Clean Energy Valleys of Death: Helping American Entrepreneurs Meet the Nation’s Energy

In a new report from the Breakthrough Institute Energy, we document the challenges facing American energy entrepreneurs seeking to commercialize advanced energy technologies to enhance US energy, economic, and environmental security. Innovative public policy solutions are needed to support private sector innovation and overcome the "valleys of death" that trap too many promising advanced energy ventures.

Download the full report, Bridging the Clean Energy Valleys of Death (pdf) here, and read on for the introduction to the report.

See two related reports, also out today:

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

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


The United States faces an urgent national imperative to modernize and diversify its energy system by developing and deploying clean, and affordable advanced energy technologies. Domestically, developing new energy supplies and ensuring affordable energy prices will bolster American competitiveness and economic growth. Reducing the cost of advanced energy technologies is the key to finally ending a dependence on volatile global oil markets that holds the American economy hostage, compromises our foreign policy, and bleeds more than a billion dollars a day out of the US economy.

Abroad, the military has already begun deploying innovative clean energy technologies to reduce the high cost, paid in both lives and money, associated with transporting fossil fuels across war zones. Moreover, the impending risks posed by climate change compel the accelerated improvement and widespread deployment of low-carbon energy technologies. Countries around the world are already recognizing the critical need for new advanced energy technologies and are positioning themselves to lead the next wave of energy innovation.

Global energy demand is rising steadily, straining the ability of conventional energy systems to keep pace. For security, economic, and environmental reasons, the global energy system is thus modernizing and diversifying. Developing and developed nations alike are seeking new forms of advanced energy technologies that reduce dependence on foreign nations, insulate economies from volatile energy markets, and are cleaner and thus less costly from a public health perspective. Supplying this $5 trillion global energy market with reliable and affordable clean energy technologies thus represents one of the most significant market opportunities of the 21st century.

Despite this clear energy innovation imperative, the United States and the world remain overly reliant on conventional fuels and exposed to the price volatility and persistent public health impacts that reliance entails. The necessary course of energy modernization remains impeded by the high cost and barriers to scalability of today's clean energy technologies. These are barriers that only innovation can overcome.

However, two obstacles currently block the progress of energy innovation, obstacles which can only be addressed through effective public policy. Due to pervasive market barriers, private sector financing is typically unavailable to bring new energy innovations from early-stage laboratory research to proof-of-concept prototype and on to full commercial scale. This leads to two market gaps that kill off too many promising new energy technologies in the cradle. These gaps are known as the early-stage "Technological Valley of Death" and the later-stage "Commercialization Valley of Death." This pair of barriers is endemic to most innovative technologies yet is particularly acute in the energy sector. As a result, many innovative energy prototypes never make it to the marketplace and never have a chance to compete with established energy technologies. These valleys of death particularly plague capital-starved start-ups and entrepreneurial small and medium-sized firms, the very same innovators that are so often at the heart of American economic vitality.

In effect, the current lack of public policy to address this pair of barriers acts to protect today's well entrenched incumbent technologies from full market competition, while hamstringing American entrepreneurs and innovative ventures seeking to develop and deploy advanced energy technologies. The implementation of creative policies to effectively deal with the Technological and Commercialization Valleys of Death will foster vibrant competition in the energy sector and help drive technological innovation and job creation throughout the economy as a whole.

In the past, the United States has driven immense and far-reaching technological transformations. As the pioneering global innovator of the 20th century, the United States built the world's largest economy because of the ingenuity and creative enterprise of its entrepreneurs and citizens. Each step of the way, proactive public policy has played a crucial role in driving American innovations, from railroads and jet engines to microchips, biotechnology, and the Internet, unleashing long waves of economic growth and shared prosperity. New and advanced clean energy technologies afford the same opportunities to the United States today –– if public policy is shaped in a way that allows American innovators to thrive once again.


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Taking on the Three Deficits: An Investment Guide to American Renewal

A new report was released this week from authors at the Breakthrough Institute and the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF). The report, "Taking on the Three Deficits: An Investment Guide to American Renewal," acknowledges the threat not just of America's budget deficit, but its trade and investment deficits as well. The cumulative effect represents a profound existential challenge to the United States, and the authors of this new report offer a pragmatic policy framework for America to emerge as a global leader in the 21st century.

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

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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Climate Pragmatism: Innovation, Resilience and No Regrets

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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Energy Emergence: Rebound and Backfire as Emergent Phenomena

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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Where Good Technologies Come From: Case Studies in American Innovation

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

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 Death of Environmentalism

In the fall of 2004, Breakthrough co-founders, Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus, triggered a firestorm of controversy with their essay, "The Death of Environmentalism." In it they argued that the politics that dealt with acid rain and smog can't deal with global warming. Society has changed, and our politics have not kept up. Environmentalism must die, they concluded, so that something new can be born.

The essay received front-page coverage in The New York Times, The Economist, Salon, and publications around the world. The essay can be downloaded by clicking here.

In 2011, Nordhaus and Shellenberger revisited the essay with a major speech at Yale University on "The Long Death of Environmentalism."

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

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

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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Hartwell Paper: A New Approach on Global Climate Policy

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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“Jumpstarting a Clean Energy Revolution with a National Institutes of Energy” Report Overview

"Jumpstarting a Clean Energy Revolution with a National Institutes of Energy," a policy memo co-authored by the Breakthrough Institute's Director of Climate and Energy Policy, Jesse Jenkins, and Third Way's Joshua Freed and Avi Zevin, is a joint effort by both think tanks to jumpstart American energy research and development.

In September 2009, Senator Sherrod Brown (D-OH) and Congressman Rush Holt (D-NJ) joined the Breakthrough Institute and Third Way to release the report and issue a call for significantly increased public investment to catalyze clean energy innovation.

You can watch the video of the release event below or click here.

The memo calls for a national commitment to energy innovation that includes direct support for the research and development of new and existing clean technologies and creates a structure for energy research, modeled on the National Institutes of Health, capable of coordinating large scale R&D efforts.

The memo acknowledges that the U.S. faces a "defining challenge" in its effort to transition to clean energy. Based on historical evidence of national commitments made to confront significant challenges, the authors suggest two key components of a national effort to address the clean energy challenge in the United States.

1) Increase federal investment in energy R&D by $15 billion per year: In line with President Obama's 2009 budget request, the scale of investment for comparable national priorities, and the recommendations of innovation experts, the authors propose a sustained $15 billion per year increase in federal clean energy R&D to approximately $20 billion per year. This level of funding is necessary to both create new breakthrough technologies and drive improvements to existing technology, enabling the production of clean energy at significantly higher efficiencies and lower costs.

2) Create a National Institutes of Energy: Modeled on the National Institutes of Health, a new National Institutes of Energy (NIE) would effectively apply R&D funding to the development of new, low-cost commercial clean energy technologies. The NIE would function as a nationwide network of regionally based, commercially focused, and coordinated innovation institutes. Alongside other effective federal energy R&D agencies, an NIE would critically strengthen the U.S. clean energy innovation system.

Full Report: Download Here (PDF)

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

"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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