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Green-energy gathering aims to build on Paris plan

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Six months after the Paris climate talks, government officials from around the world will gather in San Francisco this week to try to build more momentum for the development of cleaner energy technologies.

The 7th Clean Energy Ministerial will include representatives of the U.S. and 22 other countries and the European Commission, all focused on policies, technologies and networks that would make energy less polluting, and more affordable and efficient.

“It is a fact that coming out of Paris, nearly every country in the world is committed to a low-carbon trajectory,” said U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, who will host this week’s gathering. “That means those markets are going to start growing even faster.”

What Moniz was referring to, of course, was the agreement by the U.S. and nearly 200 other nations to take actions to limit global warming.

While opposed by Republican majorities in the House and the Senate, and already a controversial topic in this year’s presidential election, the Paris agreement is embraced by President Obama and the two Democratic candidates for the White House, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, as a sign of U.S. leadership on the environment.

Moniz and his peers plan to use the June 1-2 meeting to build on policy actions that participating nations have taken since the event was first organized by the U.S. in 2009.

Among the latest such initiatives is a commitment by the U.S. and 19 other governments to double their spending on clean-energy research and development by 2020, which officials announced during the UN-led climate talks in Paris in December.

Called “Mission Innovation,” the governments’ declaration on R&D was accompanied by a pledge by Microsoft founder Bill Gates and 27 other wealthy investors from 10 countries to promote early-stage financing, such as seed, angel and Series A investments, for game-changing energy technologies.

In an interview, Moniz said Gates and other members of the “Breakthrough Energy Coalition” will attend the ministerial meeting to discuss their activities since December.

“They will be talking about how they are organizing in terms of investment vehicles, and also how the intersection of government programs and investors will work,” Moniz said.

A model for such collaboration already exists at the Moniz-led Department of Energy, where the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy provides funding and technical support for technologies with the potential to provide breakthroughs in energy production and consumption, but still not far enough along to attract much private investment.

Oddly enough, ARPA-E has enjoyed bipartisan support since its inception in 2009, unlike many other energy and environment issues in Washington.

To date, ARPA-E has provided $1.3 billion to more than 475 projects, including 45 projects that went on to receive a total of $1.2 billion in follow-on private investment.

But the program’s funding is relatively small, with just $291 million this year, and many worthy applications are turned down. For example, ARPA-E accepted less than 2% of the proposals in one solicitation last year.

“We’ve got a lot more capacity to innovate than we’re taking advantage of,” the secretary said.

The heightened attention to green energy also comes as investors see adoption of solar and wind technologies, some aspects of which were first developed years ago, grow at exponential rates now, especially as costs come down.

Those developments seem to be making an impression among investors in Silicon Valley, some of whom have preferred information technology to energy technology because of quicker returns from the former.

“They understand that it may be 20 years before you get your investment paid off,” Moniz said of the Gates-led group, which also includes Jeff Bezos of Amazon, Richard Branson of Virgin Group, Meg Whitman of Hewlett Packard Enterprises and Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook.

“They will take risks on transformative technologies, and they are also prepared, as a few of these technologies emerge as potentially big winners, for the large capital required to scale (up) those technologies.”

Bill Loveless -- @bill_loveless on Twitter – is a veteran energy journalist and podcast host in Washington. He is the former anchor of the TV program Platts Energy Week. 

 


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