How Much Should the U.S. Government Spend on Clean Energy R&D?

When it comes to getting U.S. federal government funding to deliver clean technology innovation and save us from the energy and global warming crisis, how much is enough ? Dan Kammen, director of UC Berkeley’s Renewable Energy Labs, touched on that subject at both the Cleantech for Obama launch party and the National Science Board Task Force on Sustainable Energy last week. Kammen has previously called for at least a five-to-tenfold increase in federal energy R&D spending from annual federal budget levels — a tenfold increase in spending would deliver, over a decade, more than $150 billion for federal energy R&D.

Sounds like a lot, yeah? It’s also the figure that Obama (to whom Kammen is actually an adviser on energy) is using for his planned investment in renewable energy. Obama calls for $150 billion investment over 10 years. That spending would go toward renewables like solar and wind, plug-in vehicles and clean coal; $50 billion would go into a government-controlled Clean Technology Venture Capital Fund and $6 billion would go into energy R&D, according to New Energy Finance.

Some groups are saying $100 billion from both the public and private sector would do a lot of good on the green job front. A campaign called Green Jobs for America, which is backed by organizations like the Sierra Club, and Natural Resources Defense Council, are touting a report being released this week that says a $100 billion spent on clean energy could create 2 million green jobs in just two years. That program would combine tax credits, loan guarantees and public investment; the report, entitled “Green Recovery – A Program to Create Good Jobs and Start Building a Low-Carbon Economy,” was co-authored by Amherst’s Political Economy Research Institute and the Center for American Progress.

Whatever the details are, it’s clear we need at least 12-digit spending for the next eight years and longer. Kammen also noted at the Obama meetup that the Democratic presidential candidate’s plan is “a down payment” on our energy future. He explained to us in an email: “$150 billion is an excellent and bold start on what is needed. More will be needed…larger commitments will be needed — not necessarily public money. For us to really address climate change the private sector will have to really get behind this.”

When you think about hundreds of billions of dollars and compare that to other government programs, it’s not even that much. Kammen’s report from 2006 lays out the $150 billion in terms of how it stacks up against other U.S. government R&D spending since the 1940s. He points out the Apollo Program, which ran from 1963 to 1972, and spent $184.6 billion. The Reagan defense program of 1981 to 1989 spent $445.1 billion. And according to some estimates the war in Iraq has already cost more than $550 billion. Given that the $150 billion on energy R&D would go toward saving our planet from global warming, a tenfold increase seems like just a start.