Lessons from Europe: Funding for Research into New Technology Is Key

By Burgermeister, Jane | The American Prospect, April 2009 | Go to article overview
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Lessons from Europe: Funding for Research into New Technology Is Key


Burgermeister, Jane, The American Prospect


While the U.S. can learn much from European strategies to promote renewable energy, it must also be cautious. The International Energy Agency (IEA) review says that a major failure of the European Union's green-energy policy is a dearth of investment in research and development of new green technologies, which, the agency says, will be crucial in providing abundant and inexpensive clean energy.

Just a few promising new technologies include wave buoys that convert sea-wave energy into electricity, cellulosic biofuels, dye-sensitized solar cells, and even third-generation photovoltaic (PV) modules that could bring the price of solar energy down to less than 20 cents per watt.

Because the EU is still too reliant on a narrow range of relatively inefficient technologies, the proportion of renewable energy used in Europe today is only marginally higher than in the United States and Australia, which have not implemented any renewable-energy policy. Moreover, most of the green energy in Europe still comes from hydropower, which has been around for centuries.

To maximize the United States' chances of creating a thriving, clean-energy economy by finding green innovations, Washington should make it a priority to pour money into its country's strong civilian and military research institutions. Thanks to a deep pool of technical and scientific knowledge, the U.S. is in a good position to find the next generation of solar- and other renewable-energy technologies that could allow not just it but the entire world to switch over to clean energy inexpensively and efficiently.

The mainstay of Europe's renewable-energy policy continues to be the feed-in tariff system, which guarantees payment for anyone feeding solar PV, wind, or hydro energy into the national grid. The feed-in tariff has been credited with developing a large manufacturing base for the solar industry. However, critics say that the wafer-based solar-cell technology being produced is out of date, inefficient, and expensive. As a result, Germany's solar industry produces only about 1 percent or 2 percent of the nation's electricity but costs billions of euros every year.

Because the German solar industry spends only about 200 million euros a year on research into new technology, there is little prospect of a future PV-export hit coming from Germany that is able to compete with expected breakthroughs from the generously funded research programs in China or the United Arab Emirates.

The IEA review also criticized the EU as a whole for spending as little as 200 million euros a year on green research and development in its research program.

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