Energy Innovation – How To Do It

We are warming the planet with fossil fuel use and must find alternatives. Two articles suggest both the promise and the difficulty.

“The Clean Energy Revolution: Fighting Climate Change With Innovation,” by Varun Sivaram and Teryn Norris, explores what needs to be done to improve non-fossil energy sources. It acknowledges the need for a carbon tax, but the primary focus is on how to move forward with innovation. Given the lead times necessary to introduce new energy technologies or improve the old, what they advocate should have been started a quarter-century or more ago.

Sivaram and Norris divide energy research into two waves, the first government-driven and the second private-investment-driven, with the change in the Reagan administration. They recognize that the first wave was more successful than the second has been so far. They cite Vannevar Bush’s “Science: The Endless Frontier,” but I think they get Bush’s message wrong.

As I read that report, Bush advocated that universities do basic research, businesses apply the research, and government laboratories provide the link between the two. That was my experience working in government laboratories: a stew of basic and applied research that was oriented toward making things work. But that intermediate role decayed as Congress played games with budgets and industry insisted that the national laboratories were unfairly competing with them. Additionally, the industrial laboratories that did that stew of research for their own purposes, like Bell Labs and the oil company research laboratories, are much diminished from what they were before the 1980s.

That intermediate stage in making technologies work has been called “the valley of death” by developers and investors. A great deal of funding is required for unsure outcomes. Government funding was how nuclear energy got past the valley of death in the first wave.

Now we have single investors, like Bill Gates, who have money to spend at the levels only the government could during the first wave. That funding is subject to their whims. Gates recognizes the need to improve our energy sources and has committed to that funding. He is also trying to convince his fellow billionaires. Perhaps he will succeed.

MIT Technology Review interviews Gates on energy. Gates doesn’t believe in a carbon tax – those whimsical billionaires! But he does believe in improving energy supplies, which he feels is the full and only answer. He will also pick and choose among those energy supplies, with the help of advisors. Industry’s objections to government “competition” have included that government picks and chooses. But apparently that is better done by private industry.

Although – oops! – private investors don’t always get it right. When the government makes a mistake, it is framed as government being forever wrong; when investors make a mistake, it is only the individuals involved that are at fault. This is one of the contradictions that must be resolved for the visions discussed in these two articles to be realized.

There are other issues: academia’s obsession with clearly labeling research either basic (curiosity-driven, good) or applied (bad), which has spread to the national laboratories; the lack of honest systems studies and technology evaluations.

For government to play a more effective role, it will need more funding, which will come from higher taxes, particularly on people like Bill Gates. Energy production is too important to national security and avoiding a climate meltdown to be left to individuals’ whims. And the mission of the national laboratories needs to be clarified. Both need Congressional action. We’re not likely to see that any time soon.

Photo: U.S. President Barack Obama and Microsoft cofounder Bill Gates launch ‘Mission Innovation: Accelerating the Clean Energy Revolution’ at the World Climate Change Conference in Paris, France, November 2015. Ian Langsdon/Reuters

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