Mitt Romney wants to fund energy research and development, but not the “green energy” research that Barack Obama has favored. That’s the clear takeaway from his answers to the 14 questions posed to the two candidates by Scientific American and In his answer to the question on “Research and the Future” Romney writes:

I am a strong supporter of federally funded research… [yet] President Obama spent $90 billion in stimulus dollars in a failed attempt to promote his green energy agenda. That same spending could have funded the nation’s energy research programs at the level recommended in a recent Harvard University study for nearly twenty years.

Yet I was curious about this Harvard study. How would a President Romney focus energy research funding if not on clean energy?

A little Googling later, I discovered “Transforming U.S. Energy Innovation,” a 338-page report published in November 2011 by the Energy Technology Innovation Policy research group at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. (Romney’s domestic policy advisor Oren Cass confirms that the candidate was referring to this study.) Its recommendations are at once completely anodyne—they echo, to varying extent, the opinions of the great majority of policy experts who think seriously about technology, energy security, economics and climate change—and totally surprising, in that they resemble very little of what Romney has been saying on the campaign trail.

Perhaps the most glaring difference is that the report calls for the U.S. federal government to put a “substantial price” on carbon emissions, either through a cap-and-trade system or a carbon tax. The experts argue that a price on carbon will prod private business into developing new energy technologies. Private-sector innovation is a policy theme that the Romney camp extols, but in another question Romney states that he would “oppose steps like a carbon tax or a cap-and-trade system that would handicap the American economy and drive manufacturing jobs away.”

Without a price on carbon, a lot of the rationale disappears for the fossil-fuel research that Romney favors. “There’s really not much of a point in [the government] doing a whole lot of R&D on coal with carbon capture and storage—which is always going to be more expensive than coal without carbon capture and storage—unless you’re expecting that at some point down the road there’s going to be some sort of motivation for utilities to deploy it,” says Matthew Bunn, one of the report’s co-authors. After all, if it doesn’t cost anything to release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, why would any utility bother to bury it?

Romney also criticizes Obama for describing his own energy policy as a “hodgepodge,” and for “misguided attempts to play the role of venture capitalist, pick winners and losers, and spend tens of billions of dollars on politically-prioritized investments have been a disaster for the American taxpayer.” The snipe can most likely be read as a reference to solar-panel maker Solyndra, which received over $500 million in federal loan guarantees before going bankrupt.

Yet when the report’s authors polled a number of experts to see how the federal government could most wisely direct its research largesse, they concluded that the government needs to spread research funding around, supporting not only different research areas such as biofuels, solar power, energy storage, nuclear and yes, fossil fuels—but different stages of the research process. “We make the point that in order to get those technologies actually across the finish line to the point where they can be competitive and widely deployed, it’s not just a matter of research and development,” says Bunn. “You also need support for commercial demonstration for some kinds of technologies—stuff that the private sector won’t be convinced will be a reasonable risk until they can do it at scale.” He specifically cites carbon-capture research for coal-fired power plants, which no power company is going to pursue until the government shows it can be done at large scales in the real world. Romney’s energy plan would pare back on these commercialization stages and concentrate federal funding on pure research.

The Harvard report also recommends that the federal government double* its energy research budget to an even $10 billion a year. A significant chunk of this money would go into fossil fuels ($2.4 billion) and nuclear power ($1.8 billion), with most of the rest coming from research into bioenergy ($682 million), energy storage systems ($244 million), solar photovoltaics ($409 million), alternative vehicle technology ($2.1 billion) and building efficiency systems ($678 million). A $90 billion sum would fund such a research program for nine years, not the “nearly twenty” years cited by Romney.

Bunn is grateful for Romney’s stated support of energy research, but he recognizes that politicians and energy experts can appear to be talking in two different worlds. “Over the years there has been bipartisan support for substantial federal investments in energy, and years ago there was bipartisan support—including from Senator John McCain—for a cap-and-trade system in the U.S. that would result in a substantial carbon price,” says Bunn. “At one time when Governor Romney was governor he was supportive of Massachusetts participating in a carbon trading arrangement in the Northeast. I would like to see these issues again becoming something that can gain bipartisan support.” One suspects that this Harvard pronouncement will not make it out to the campaign trail.

Thanks to Shawn Otto at for assistance confirming the study with the Romney team.

* Update 9/18/12 2:18 p.m.: $10 billion would double, not quintuple, current budgets, which now total just above $5 billion a year.

Image by davelawrence8 on Flickr