Monday, Feb. 9, 2009 | 2 a.m.
Beyond the Sun
The news has been mostly bad for Nevada’s higher education system in recent months.
But a Brookings Institution report to be unveiled today in Washington, D.C., envisions a brighter future for universities, such as UNLV, that are uniquely positioned to take advantage of rich alternative energy resources and partnerships with other regional universities, private industry and state and federal governments.
The report, the latest installment of Brookings’ “Blueprint for American Prosperity,” calls for “energy discovery-innovation institutes,” which would bring together public and private scientists to research and develop new commercial energy technology.
The good news would come for UNLV only if a couple of other hurdles are overcome. Congress would first have to include the $30 billion-a-year proposal in energy legislation, and then UNLV would have to compete for and win the grant funding.
The Brookings report calls for a tenfold increase in federal spending on energy research, which today makes up a fraction of one percent of the federal budget. In fact, federal spending on energy research and development is one fifth what it was in the 1970s and ’80s, which the report says is “clearly inadequate in light of the coming challenges” including oil shortages and climate change.
Jim Duderstadt, a lead author of the report and a former president of the University of Michigan, said spending on energy research and development — the federal government’s and the private sector’s — is dwarfed by the costs of health care, national defense and space exploration.
The amount spent on energy research and development “should be comparable” to the amount spent on “NASA or the National Institute of Health,” Duderstadt said.
Ron Smith, director of the Center for Advanced Research at UNLV, said the university would be in a good position to do the kind of commercial energy technology research and development the report envisions.
“We are positioning UNLV to be a major player ... because we’ve done so much energy research,” Smith said. “We’re trying to focus on solar energy, bringing it to the marketplace.”
The idea is to research technologies that could be easily commercialized.
“We don’t want journal articles. We want use-inspired research to catalyze commercialization,” said Mark Muro, policy director of the Brookings Institution.
But UNLV is not known for its ability to turn research into patents.
In 2006, UNLV registered for one fifth as many patents as Brigham Young and Arizona State universities did.
UNLV is working to improve that rate and has other factors in its favor, Muro said.
UNLV has done extensive research on solar and other renewable energy sources and is home to the nationally-known Harry Reid Center for Environmental Studies.
“All of these make Southern Nevada a reasonable candidate for creating something powerful that could get funded,” Muro said.
But why should the federal government fund research into new energy technologies that would be used by for-profit utilities?
Because energy advancements take years, even decades, and private industry is unable to cover the tab for research that takes that long, Duderstadt said.
Plus, individual companies can’t be sure they’ll be the only ones to capitalize on their inventions.
“The work is speculative, and it’s hard to control and capture all the economic benefits of doing it,” Muro said. “This won’t happen on its own.”