Renewables R&D funding insufficient, says MIT head

R&D investment makes renewables commercially viable by lowering costs

Renewable energy is needed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Renewable energy is needed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Investment in research and development (R&D) is insufficient to make renewable energies commercially competitive with fossil fuel, with both governments and energy firms shying away from spending, said the head of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

More funding is needed to achieve the emission reduction goals set out in the United Nations Climate Change Conference summit in Cancun in December last year, said Dr. Susan Hockfield, MIT’s president, at the World Future Energy Summit (WFES) held in Abu Dhabi.

“Unfortunately policy has undermined technology as cash strapped governments don’t want to spend,” she said, pointing out that the global recession has curbed state funding.

The importance of R&D was underlined by other speakers at the event.

“With significant investment in technology, the cost of alternative energy can be significantly lowered,” Dr. Richard Newell, administrator at the US Energy Information Administration.

Hockfield referred to an International Energy Agency (IEA) report that said that governments need to invest 0.8 percent of their GDP into researching renewables technology.

Yet no country that is meeting that target; Korea spending the biggest share of GDP with 0.6 percent, France is spending 0.5 percent, China 0.4 percent and the US lagging behind by spending only 0.3 percent.

“The relative share of energy in R&D has gone down from 12 percent to four percent,” said Hockfield.

The dearth in spending is replicated in the private sector, she adds.

“Large incumbent energy firms have long dominated the energy scene. Energy companies typically invest far less in R&D than research intensive industries.”

Energy firms invest only 0.23 percent of their revenue into R&D, while pharmaceutical companies usually invest around 15 percent, according to Hockfield.

Academia can play a role in the developing renewable energy technology, said the MIT president.

“Its for universities to directly work directly with incumbent energy companies.”

Meanwhile, research by Bloomberg New Energy Finance suggests that global investment in renewables has increased to US$243 billion in 2010, a fivefold increase to a year earlier.




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