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The National Clean Energy Potential of the Mountain West

The nation is urgently searching for ways to transform its energy system with cleaner alternatives. One part of the solution may lie in the Intermountain West region, already home to a strong set of energy innovation assets and networks.

In a new policy brief we examine a national-regional partnership in which the federal government leverages the innovation strengths found among the universities, labs, and industries of the Intermountain West to address the nation’s multiple energy challenges. Specifically, the brief calls for taking an earlier Brookings proposal for a nationwide network of federally-supported energy-Discovery Innovation Institutes (e-DIIs) and bringing it to ground in the Intermountain West.

The region has over a dozen stellar research universities; four national energy labs, including the National Renewable Energy Laboratory’s (NREL) that does cutting-edge work on renewables; an abundance of renewable energy potential in solar, wind, and geothermal; and unparalleled opportunities to build new infrastructure, like smart grids and energy efficient buildings, from the ground-up. 

Not surprisingly, the region’s clean energy players are already engaged in a wide breadth of energy innovation activities, including Arizona’s and Nevada’s research expertise around solar power, Colorado’s leadership in wind technologies, Utah’s and Idaho’s efforts in geothermal, and New Mexico’s advances around biofuels. Our proposal seeks to scale up these and other existing capabilities and expand the research collaborations already in place by setting up a federally-supported, region-wide network of distributed energy research centers that would draw in universities, labs, corporations, entrepreneurs, investors, and state and local government to move basic scientific discoveries from the lab to market commercialization and then onward to wide deployment.

Given the region’s assets, a series of four to six of these translational energy research centers, each focused on a different theme, could reasonably be located throughout the Intermountain West with total annual federal funding between $1 billion and $2 billion. For example, a solar energy hub might be located in Southern Nevada and Arizona that brings together the Universities of Arizona and Nevada and Arizona State University, national labs like NREL and Sandia, and companies such as NV Energy and Acciona. Or a Colorado-New Mexico partnership might host a center focused on smart grid integration that involves the universities of Colorado and New Mexico, Colorado State University, and the private sector work at Lucent, Cisco, and Lockheed Martin. And, certainly many other plausible consortiums focused on different energy topics and drawing in various regional partners could take shape through the Mountain West.

As to how all this might work--each regional center would be selected through a competitive federal award process that would not only evaluate the scientific merit of the proposal but also the commitment of various partners; plans for management and financial stability; strategies for technology transfer and commercialization; and approaches for connecting to surrounding regional industry clusters and the regional and national center network.

With this bold approach, the federal government could catalyze dynamic new partnerships among the Mountain West’s business, academic, and lab communities that at once empowers the region to reach its potential as prominent energy innovation leader and helps the nation tackle its clean energy challenges.