Nobel Winners: Climate Bill Needs More R&D Funds

(AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
A group of 34 U.S. Nobel Laureates sent a letter to President Obama today asking for him to push for more research and development funding in the climate change and energy legislation currently making its way through Congress.

While the nation is gaining ground now in the clean energy sector, they wrote, the development of potentially lucrative, carbon-cutting sectors could fall flat within the next decade without more basic research funding.

"We can get many gains now in efficiency (and) conservation," Burton Richter, a winner of the Nobel Prize in Physics who signed the letter, told reporters today on a conference call. "But to get what we need tomorrow, we must also invest more."

Specifically, the letter asks for the final cap and trade bill to establish a Clean Energy Technology Fund at $15 billion annually for 10 years, as Mr. Obama has previously called for. The president has previously proposed that proceeds from a cap and trade system be used to fund the initiative.

The cap and trade bill that passed in the House does not include any such stable funding mechanism; furthermore, about 85 percent of the permits for the cap and trade system -- which could generate revenue -- would be given away.

While the House bill would create technology deployment programs for particular industries, including coal and oil refineries, only 1.5 percent of funds in the bill would be allocated to energy R&D. The funding comes to roughly $2.5 billion a year starting in 2013, with $1 billion of that allocated to coal carbon capture research, Rep. Rush Holt (D-N.J.) said in the conference call.

Holt said that the bill funds the demonstration and deployment of technologies that are already market ready in energy efficiency and renewables – but, he said, that is not enough.

"What I fear is in a few years from now, after the green jobs have ben created, the existing technologies have been deployed, people will say, 'Who's in charge of phase two?'" he said.

The anticipated response, Holt said, is that the market will respond.

"In the last year, we've had a reminder that the market isn't so magic after all," he said. "I think unless we build in the innovation that will be necesary, then we're on a wing and prayer here that the innovation will somehow appear."

Stable funding is needed, both Richter and Holt said, to develop and bring to market technologies like hydrogen fuel cells that can support more than a narrow niche market, advanced biofuels and a new generation of batteries for transportation beyond lithium.

"We shouldn't forget the economy of the future," Richter said. "How many things are we going to throw away in the energy future, and how many things are we gong to try and industrialize here at home?"

The Senate has yet to take up the cap and trade measure.