Given the awful death toll that climate change will bring, it's disturbing to think that renewable energy research commands only 2 percent of global public research budgets. The private sector isn't stepping up to the plate either. In fact, the ratio of R&D to sales is under 2 percent for renewables compared with over 5 percent in consumer electronics and 15 percent in pharmaceuticals.

A new initiative aims to fix that by coordinating a huge, international and coordinated push for publicly funded research. The Global Apollo Programme, named after the Cold War era efforts that put a man on the moon in just 10 years, will aim to make new-build baseload renewables cheaper than new-build, baseload coal in sunny regions by 2020, and globally by 2025. The focus will be on three key areas — renewable energy production, storage and transmission. It's not hard to imagine the transformational impact that such an economic shift would have, but is it possible? And how will it be achieved? 

First, it's worth considering that the cost of renewables (especially solar) is already falling fast, and energy storage is going mainstream too. In fact, grid parity for rooftop solar may already have been achieved in many localities. But imagine what would happen if governments and the private sector got serious about funding coordinated research, development and demonstration (RD&D) projects to keep the costs coming down? Here, in essence, are the basic tenets of the Global Apollo Programme:

  • National governments will be asked to commit 0.02 percent of annual GDP to renewable energy research and development.
  • The aim will be to raise global public R&D from the current $6 billion to a minimum of $15 billion a year in its early years. (If that sounds like a lot, consider that one company alone, IKEA, has just committed more than $1.1 billion to climate change efforts.)
  • Research will be guided by the annual publication of a road map that identifies bottlenecks to further cost reduction and spells out the advances needed at the pre-competitive stages of RD&D.
  • Governments and the private sector will then fund and execute that research, coordinating with the International Energy Agency in Paris. 
The model is hardly new. In fact, much of it is based on the International Technology Roadmap for Semiconductors (ITRS), which has used similar methods to promote breakthroughs and create significant cost reductions in semiconductors which have, in turn, contributed to the huge cost reductions in computing and electronics that we have seen in recent decades. 

There will, of course, be those who argue that government should not "meddle in the markets," but these arguments ignore the fact that it already does and always has. As the Global Apollo Programme report itself points out, innovations as diverse as computing, semiconductors, the Internet, genetic sequencing, broadband, satellite communications and nuclear power are due, in large part, to massive public RD&D efforts. 

Others will argue that we already have the technologies we need to compete with fossil fuels, especially if the health and environmental impacts of those fuels are factored into their economic costs. Indeed, the Apollo Programme makes no bones about the fact that we should continue to fund and subsidize the deployment of existing technologies, and we should also be pushing for more accurate pricing of energy — both in the form of eliminating fossil fuel subsidies and promoting some form of carbon pricing/tax.

But there's little doubt that, were the Apollo Programme to succeed in its stated price reduction goals, the impact would be enormous, transitioning the vision of a 100 percent renewable-powered world from a tangible possibility into something more close to an economic certainty. 

And that would be pretty freaking cool.

Related on MNN:

Research push could make clean energy costs plummet
International program gets serious about funding projects to keep renewable energy prices falling.