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Roya Sabri headshot

Renewables Can Benefit from Smart Spending on Infrastructure

By Roya Sabri

The United States renewables sector has continued to grow this year, even during the COVID-19 pandemic and despite not receiving aid from the federal coronavirus stimulus package.

Renewable power is forecast to hold a 21 percent share of U.S. electricity use in 2020, up from 18 percent in 2019. And it’s overtaking coal. Last year, renewables became cheaper to produce in most regions of the country. This year, nationwide renewable power is projected to surpass coal power production for the first time.

Innovation in the renewables sector currently on pause

The long-term view of renewables is looking bright, but in the meantime, much innovation and development has been put on the back burner. Already more than 40 percent of wind and solar equipment that would have been commissioned from April to the end of 2020 has been delayed, as Logan Goldie-Scot, head of clean power research at BloombergNEF recently told Yale Environment 360.

Pausing innovation and construction doesn’t bode well for renewable energy’s future growth. When activity comes back online, the systems supporting clean energy should be fine-tuned and oiled to support needed progress. During this hiatus, it’s important to take a careful look at policy frameworks and funding solutions.

A study published in Nature in February could help researchers elevate renewable energy policy and funding. The study identifies the challenges of evaluating energy innovation policies and public subsidy programs and offers solutions.

Could public funds for renewables R&D be better spent?

“It’s critical to ensure that the public resources spent on supporting innovation are not wasted. We need to design policies and support programs based on evidence of what mechanisms actually work,” Professor Jacquelyn Pless of MIT’s Sloan School of Management and leader of the research said in a press release, “This requires identifying the barriers to clean energy innovation as well as the policies and interventions for overcoming them.”

The study authors identify several key challenges researchers currently face in evaluating the effectiveness of policies and funding. They include time delays between funding and development; the lack of any standard metrics in measuring innovation within the clean energy sector; and little cohesion between various clean energy policies and programs.

Governments and agencies can overcome each of these challenges by being more deliberate in data collection and tracking, in a way, mimicking “the nature of an experiment,” Pless writes.

One strategy the paper identifies is simply noting which grant applicants are successful and non-successful. This can help researchers assess the difference between funded and non-funded firms over the short- and long-term and keep track of what technologies and solutions the innovations end up supporting.

Adding some randomization to policy and program design (where factors would have been assigned arbitrarily) can also help researchers assess outcomes more confidently. One example study the authors give is funding requirements like collaboration with companies, national laboratories or universities. In this example, randomization would help determine whether collaboration has an effect on commercialization, Pless said.

Pless and colleagues also emphasize that a one-size-fits-all approach isn’t ideal for renewable energy innovation. What works for one organization may not work for another.

Diversifying policies and programs does not, however, preclude collaboration. “All of these solutions fall under the umbrella of multiple stakeholders working together, as access to data is critical for researchers to adequately answer these questions,” Pless said in the press release.

“Overcoming these challenges could lead to a significant increase in the evidence base of policies that can successfully drive innovation in the energy sector,” she said.

A healthy renewables sector could be an engine for economic recovery

Not only can a healthy, growing and innovative clean energy sector diminish the U.S.’s greenhouse gas emissions; it could also employ some of the 26 million people who have lost jobs during the nation-wide lock-down.

Will renewable energy’s momentum last?

Research does show that demand for wind, solar and hydroelectric energy will increase this year, especially as renewable sources have lower fuel costs for generating electricity than fossil fuels. Continuing to grow and expand will require innovation, though. When researchers and engineers get back to work, they will need effective funding and supportive policies. That’s where this framework from Nature comes in.

Image credit: Ricardo Esquivel/Pexels

Roya Sabri headshot

Roya Sabri is a writer and graphic designer based in Illinois. She writes about the circular economy, advancements in CSR, the environment and equity. As a freelancer, she has worked on communications for nonprofits and multinational organizations. Find her on LinkedIn

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