By MICHAEL BURNHAM of Greenwire Published: June 10, 2010

A new council composed of General Electric Co. CEO Jeff Immelt, Microsoft Corp. Chairman Bill Gates and other corporate executives is urging the federal government to more than triple investments in clean-energy technologies to boost the nation’s economic competitiveness and protect the environment.

The American Energy Innovation Council, launched today in Washington, D.C., wants Congress and the Obama administration to increase the minimum level of investments in clean energy research, development and deployment (RD&D) from $5 billion to $16 billion annually. About $1 billion of the total should support the U.S. Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, or ARPA-E, which Congress authorized without an initial budget but the Obama administration funded with $400 million from the federal stimulus package last year.

“We know from our business experience that if you only give a fraction of what’s required to be a success, you will not be a success,” said council member Chad Holliday, chairman of Bank of America Corp. and former CEO of E.I. du Pont de Nemours & Co.

Joining Holliday, Gates and Immelt on the seven-member council are former Lockheed Martin Corp. Chairman Norm Augustine, Xerox Corp. Chairman and CEO Ursula Burns, Cummins Inc. Chairman and CEO Tim Solso, and noted energy venture capitalist John Doerr, a partner with Kleiner Perkins Caufield and Byers. The business heavyweights are slated to meet with President Obama and congressional lawmakers later today, Holliday said.

In addition to calling for more clean-tech funding — which should be spread across nuclear fission, solar, wind and fossil fuels and other energy technologies — the council wants Congress to create an energy strategy board. The independent board would be charged with developing and monitoring a national energy plan for Congress and the White House, as well as overseeing what the executives call a new “Energy Challenge Program” for large-scale demonstration projects.

The program should be structured as a joint venture between the federal government and the energy industry, according to a “business plan” the executives plan to hand policymakers today. The program — which should be co-funded by the public and private sectors at an initial level of $20 billion over a decade — should focus on the transition from pre-commercial, large-scale energy systems to integrated, full-size system tests.

Emerging technologies that would benefit from commercial-scale testing, the report suggests, include grid energy-storage devices, batteries, advanced nuclear reactors, deepwater offshore wind farms and super-lightweight vehicles.

“The R&D piece, with the government playing a strong role, is critical and urgent,” Gates said.

The council also wants the federal government to create energy innovation “centers of excellence,” which would foster multidisciplinary collaboration amongst scientists from universities, federal laboratories and other public and private institutions.

The centers, which the council contends will drive down the cost of deploying new energy technologies, will require $150 million to $250 million annually, according to the report. The funding should be part of the $16 billion annual appropriation for RD&D.

“These can be our new hubs of invention,” said Cummins CEO Solso, whose company makes diesel and natural gas engines and electric power generation systems.

GE CEO Immelt said his industrial conglomerate, which ranks among the world’s largest makers of wind turbines, plans to double its investment in clean-energy technologies to $10 billion during the next decade. But Immelt and other council members underscored that the federal government must ultimately put a price on emissions of carbon dioxide to spur other companies to boost their clean-tech investments.

The council is not backing specific climate and energy legislation in Congress, Immelt underscored, but Obama is urging Senate lawmakers to pass a bill this year.

The House nearly a year ago passed legislation, H.R. 2454, that would cap U.S. emissions of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases at 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020 and 83 percent by 2050. The bill, sponsored by Reps. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and Edward Markey (D-Mass.), would also set a 20 percent renewable-energy and energy-efficiency standard by 2020.

“The world is not going to wait for the United States to lead,” Immelt said. “This is about innovation; this is about competition; this is about energy security.”

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