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Four charts that show the U.S. spends too little on energy research

At his confirmation hearing this morning, Energy Secretary nominee Ernest Moniz told the Senate that the United States spends far too little on energy R&D. "We are underinvesting by a factor of three," he said.

Is that accurate? Many energy experts have, indeed, argued over the years that the U.S. government should do a lot more to invest in innovative new energy technologies — particularly if we want to address global warming. The specific dollar figures are often hotly debated. But it's worth laying out the basic situation, in a few charts and graphs:

1) U.S. energy R&D has been growing in recent years, though levels are still below their peak in the 1970s — and they're set to drop in the years ahead:

According to the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the United States spent $4.36 billion on non-defense energy research in 2012.* That's more than double the amount from a decade ago, adjusted for inflation, and energy has been the fastest-growing R&D category.

That said, funding for energy-related research is now scheduled to drop significantly in the coming years, thanks to budget caps and the sequester. And energy R&D still makes up a much smaller portion of the federal budget than health or space research.

*Update: Note that this figure doesn't include military spending. The Pentagon spent around $900 million on various forms of energy science and R&D in 2012. That's not always strictly comparable, and it's also set to drop in the years ahead, but it should be mentioned.

2) The Energy Department's R&D program has a big focus on renewables and efficiency, but there's also money for nuclear power and fossil fuels:

Notice that this chart doesn't line up exactly with chart #1, because a massive chunk of the Energy Department's budget goes toward atomic defense and isn't considered "nondefense energy R&D." Still, this graph gives a sense of the size of the relative federal investments in renewables, nuclear power, and fossil fuels. (The latter includes research into coal plants that can capture and bury their carbon underground.)

Then there's ARPA-E. This is a relatively new agency that focuses on basic research into long-shot energy technologies like laser drilling for geothermal energy, advanced lithium-ion batteries, and techniques to manufacture cheaper solar cells.

3) We're spending less on R&D to develop various clean-energy technologies than groups like the International Energy Agency have recommended:

Okay, on to the argument that the U.S. federal government spends too little on energy research. The basic case is laid out in the above graph from the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation.

Basically, ITIF breaks down how much the federal government spent in 2010 on basic science and R&D for various clean-energy technologies, from advanced vehicles to smart grids to solar power to higher-efficiency coal.

ITIF then compared those funding levels to recommendations from the International Energy Agency on the amount of energy R&D that will likely prove necessary to keep global warming below 2°C. Suffice to say, U.S. federal spending is well below those levels in every category. (These calculations all account for the fact that the private sector will also contribute a significant amount.)

4) Federal energy R&D is lower than what a variety of experts have argued is necessary to tackle climate change:

That "expert consensus" in the fourth column can be found here — ITIF just tallied up all the various reports and recommendations floating out there and finds that most of them suggest the U.S. government should be spending between $8 billion and $30 billion per year on energy research in order to address climate change. So Moniz is on the lower end, if anything.

Note that the graphs above do not include deployment programs for already-proven technology — such as tax credits for building wind turbines or loan guarantees for nuclear plants. The federal government also spent about $8 billion on those items in 2012. Deployment programs can help bolster innovation and bring down costs, but they don't count as R&D in these calculations.

You can play around in more detail with how the federal government spends money on various energy programs with the ITIF's Energy Tracker here.

Further reading:

— Over the weekend, Matthew Stepp explained why the United States was unlikely to curb its greenhouse-gas emissions without a big uptick in energy research. Existing clean-energy technologies like wind and solar still have serious constraints, and "much more innovation is necessary to achieve deep and affordable carbon reductions."

— David Roberts has a thoughtful essay in which he tries to adjudicate the long-standing fight between those who think we need to do more to price carbon and deploy existing technologies and those who think we need more R&D and new energy breakthroughs. His argument is that to meet that 2°C goal, both will likely prove necessary.

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