A Revolution for the 21st Century: America Needs Clean Energy Innovation and Needs it Now

November 17th, 2010

by and


In 1969—when UCLA Professor Leonard Kleinrock sent the first Internet message from his laboratory—and for years after, companies like Google, Facebook, Amazon and Netflix were not even imaginable. Back then, DARPA, NIST, FCC and NASA were the drivers of the nascent Internet.

What does this tell us? That when we invest in research and innovation, the opportunities are boundless. That American capitalism can take a seed of an idea and create revolutions in our economy and society. That America can dominate economically, as it has with information technology, if we invest in innovation.

Looking back at the economic evolution from 1969 to today prompted a simple question: how can we drive a clean energy revolution in the United States?

What we found is that:

Innovation is needed now, because while the world is moving to clean energy, today’s technology is neither cheap enough nor reliable enough to replace fossil fuels.

The United States has a lot of catching up to do, thanks to market failures in the private sector and too little leadership, organization or investment from the federal government.

There is a roadmap for American innovation leadership if we create a true public-private sector partnership to make clean energy cheap, reform existing structures, and commit to investing the necessary resources to get the job done.

These conclusions led us to launch Third Way’s new Clean Energy Innovation Project. We will make a sustained case for American clean energy innovation. To start this, we are releasing our inaugural report, which examines clean energy innovation policy and investment in the U.S. and around the globe. It also offers a number of ways to help jump start what we believe is lagging U.S. clean energy innovation efforts. Over the life of the Project, Third Way will build out many of these ideas in more detail in a series of follow up papers. Innovation alone will not bring about a clean energy revolution, so we will also explore other actions that the U.S. must take in subsequent papers.

The potential is there. The global energy market, including fossil and clean energy sources, is worth $6 trillion today. While the energy market has always been driven by fossil fuels, it is moving slowly, but inevitably, toward clean energy as countries decide they can no longer tolerate the pollution costs and security risks of conventional energy or the threat of global warming.  That’s why the clean energy market alone is expected to grow by $2.2 trillion over the next decade.

The great hurdle is making clean energy as cheap as fossil fuels. This will require major breakthroughs. Existing clean energy sources are too expensive and have technical limitations. The payoff is that the countries that are home to this next generation of affordable clean energy technologies will likely dominate the 21st century economy.

The choice is clear for the United States. As clean energy use expands, we can import foreign innovations, made in foreign factories, or we can create, build and sell them here at home. The United States can emerge as the dominant economy of the 21st century, just as it was in the 20th century. But we will not get there unless we change course and do so rapidly.