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One concern is that the pipeline from basic research to an affordable commercial technology is decades long: if new research isn’t currently feeding this pipeline, it could run dry just when growing energy demand worldwide means that new products are needed more than ever. “If the government research funding is being squeezed significantly, it tends to hit the beginning of the pipeline, which to a certain extent you don’t see for a few years,” Moniz says. “But you will see it down the road. We’ll be paying the price.”

“We’ve lulled ourselves into thinking we’re the leading country in renewable-energy technology because we were the early leader,” Eckhart says. “But we’ve gotten old, and soft, and underfunded. We are simply not competitive in the world market anymore.” Indeed, he says that countries like Germany, Japan, China, and India are now the primary manufacturers of technologies that were originally developed with U.S. funding. “Of the largest ten wind-turbine manufacturers, the only U.S. company is GE,” Eckhart says. “Nine of the ten are non-U.S. companies. Of the largest ten solar-cell manufacturers in the world, none are U.S. companies.”

Perhaps more important in the short term than funding energy research is changing government policy, say some experts. Technology exists today that can reduce emissions from power plants and cut petroleum use, but it is not being put to use. If a price were put on carbon emissions, Moniz says, “that would be a huge influence almost immediately in terms of what existing technologies industry deploys.”

To develop carbon-free sources of energy and reduce petroleum dependence, Romm says the United States needs a program on the same scale–relative to GDP–as the Manhattan Project or the Apollo program. It would mean spending tens of billions of dollars on basic and applied research, and commercialization of existing technologies. “We have to go whole hog with the technologies that we have now,” Romm says. “At the same time, we have to develop new technologies so that after we’ve spent 20 years deploying what we have, we have another go-around of technologies.”

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