Last week, the White House released a report on the national security implications of climate change, echoed in President Obama’s commencement speech at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy. Both outline the necessity of investment in clean energy innovations, and come at a time when the House is poised to slash funding for energy research. If Congress does not authorize funding for clean energy and efficiency innovations, the negative effects will be far reaching.
As a former maintenance platoon commander in Iraq in 2004, I was responsible for keeping our generators running in order to ensure our communications network remained functional. Our thirsty, often sand-bogged machines required a constant stream of fuel, which needed to be brought in by convoy over deadly roads. Between 2003-2007, over 3,000 Americans were killed or injured in fuel convoys. Using renewable energy sources would have saved those lives from destruction.
And in the face of climate change, our need for energy security hits even closer to home. Coastal areas in my home state of New York are at risk from rising sea levels. My former colleague Adam Sobel, a professor at Columbia University, has studied weather and climate dynamics for 20 years. His recent book, Storm Surge, about Superstorm Sandy, illustrates what climate scientists have long known: that rising seas — and the storms that will flood coastlines worse than ever before — necessitate investments in stronger infrastructure and renewable energy sources.
In the book, he says, “Most of us just can’t visualize the disaster until we actually see it… what new protections will be put in place, now that imagination is no longer needed to visualize the New York metropolitan area underwater?” It is crucial that our leaders fund research to engineer and update coastal infrastructure. Moreover, the use of renewable energy sources in the immediate aftermath of storms would enable quicker recovery. When transportation routes are blocked, dependence on fossil fuels can prompt a supply-chain nightmare. Sobel’s and other scientists’ calls to action should be heeded.
Interestingly, the military is taking a leadership position in clean energy, increasing its investment in energy-efficient vehicles, biofuels, and even solar backpacks. Its leaders realize full well that the insatiable fuel demands of its trucks, planes, and generators add up to a major liability.
But now, some lawmakers are limiting clean energy research. The America COMPETES Reauthorization Act of 2015, which passed the House 217-205 two weeks ago and is now with the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, would cut the Department of Energy’s budget for renewable energy and efficiency innovations by 29 percent, and cut the budget for ARPA-E, its advanced projects directorate, by 50 percent. It would also prohibit the National Science Foundation from supporting commercializable biofuels. This threatens national security by hampering America’s potential to develop energy-related innovations in the face of climate change.
Legislators in favor of the bill argue that the private sector will take on the bulk of research and development. But as someone who has licensed innovative technologies from universities to startups, I can tell you that this takes a lot of nurturing.
For example, in New York City, a state-funded program called PowerBridgeNY provides proof-of-concept funding for energy-related innovations stemming from discoveries at six area universities. The funding, in tandem with business coaching, helps get fledgling startups’ wares out of the lab and in front of investors. Nearly all of these technologies start as federally funded science and engineering projects, and are often students’ PhD theses. PowerBridgeNY’s government support is absolutely crucial in order to bring innovations to the private sector; without it, these projects would not see daylight.
And yes, high-tech startups spurred by university discoveries do occasionally get acquired by large corporations. But that is only after years of incubation. And as I have personally witnessed, federal funding (usually from the NSF, DOD, or DARPA) is necessary for those technologies to exit the academic ecosystem in the first place. More government dollars — whether from an amended America COMPETES Reauthorization Act or its replacement — must concentrate on energy security and improved infrastructure engineering. This would protect U.S. citizens from natural disasters at home, and deployed service members from deadly convoys abroad.
The military understands the value of clean energy investment, especially in light of the threat to national security posed by climate change. The question is: will lawmakers? As a veteran, I do not want my brothers and sisters in arms to be thousands of miles from home, hoping for a fuel shipment to wend its way through a hostile place so they can accomplish their mission. The path for energy innovations from research institutions to boots on the ground must be cleared — with government support.
Teresa Fazio is a writer in New York City and a former Technology Licensing Officer at Columbia University. She served as a Marine Corps officer in Iraq in 2004, earned a PhD in materials science, and is a member of the Truman National Security Project’s Defense Council.
Photo: Biofuels are tested aboard USS Nimitz. (Official U.S. Navy Page/Flickr)