There are still power plants operating today that Thomas Edison could have seen with his own eyes. If he were to tour our electrical grid, he would recognize that too. As former Secretary of State George Shultz says, in energy "the past must not be prologue." Can we reinvent our energy system in only ten years? I think we can -- but we need to have a clear mission, we need to aim high, and we need substantial and sustained R&D funding.
This funding, coupled with tax incentives, loan guarantees, and other market mechanisms, is needed to drive innovation across the entire R&D pipeline -- from research, to development, to demonstration, to deployment, to full-scale commercialization. At Google we like to say, “from lightbulbs to lightbulbs" -- from the initial idea to real products. However you phrase it, investment is needed across that entire pipeline, especially from the government in the early stages where the energy industry often does not invest the large amounts needed to generate technological breakthroughs.
Since 1980 U.S. federal investment in energy R&D has dropped by 58 percent. Back then, 10 percent of the total government R&D investment was in energy. Today, the percentage has shrunk to only two percent. Recent signs in Washington are definitely positive. Earlier this year, President Obama added over $5.7 billion in 2-year stimulus funding for energy research, development, and demonstration. But this isn't enough, and it's not sustained. We're still on a 2-lane innovation road, not a superhighway -- and the road we're currently on is headed for a big cliff. Unless something changes, we're going to lose this significant funding after next year.
President Obama has called for $150 billion over 10 years for energy R&D. Some experts go even further -- Professors Dan Kammen and Gregory Nemet at UC Berkeley propose that annual energy R&D levels on the order of $30 billion will be necessary to address the climate challenge. And I was delighted to see recently that ARPA-E -- the new Department of Energy agency chartered to fund breakthrough ideas -- has made its first set of grants of $151 million for 37 projects. This is a great start, but it is only a start. We all need do our part to help convince our leaders in Washington to follow up on this down payment with substantial and sustained investment.
Graph 1: Correlation between petrol prices in the UK (above) and public interest in electric cars, as illustrated by Google searches on the term ‘electric car’
Similarly, Google queries can help predict economic activity, providing a real time report on query volume, while economic data is typically released several days after the close of the month. Given this time lag, it is not implausible that Google queries in a category like "Automotive/Vehicle Shopping" during the first few weeks of November may help predict what actual November automotive sales will be like when the official data is released halfway through December. Our work to date is summarized in a paper called Predicting the Present with Google Trends. We find that Google Trends data can help improve forecasts of the current level of activity for a number of different economic time series, including automobile sales, home sales, retail sales, and travel behavior.