Why Is This So Hard?

If everyone from T. Boone Pickens to Vinood Khosla to Steven Chu agrees that the world needs to develop affordable, low-carbon, efficient, and sustainable energy technologies, why do we have to spend so much time dithering about the design of research and development, demonstration, diffusion, and adoption programs? Why are governments and the private sector investing so little in energy research? Why are reliable experts such as Daniel Yergin writing that fossil fuels will dominate the energy economy for at least another two decades?

The articles in this issue provide some of the answers. First, the energy system is large, expensive, durable, and deeply embedded in the economy and the physical infrastructure. This very large ship will not turn on a dime, or even a few billion dimes. The inertia of sunk investment in the oil, gas, and coal industries, in gas stations and power plants, in buildings, lighting fixtures, and appliances, and in millions of jobs will not be overcome by even the most dazzling laboratory breakthroughs. Although broad macro-support exists for energy innovation, very vehement micro-opposition is in place to block or slow specific changes in the energy system.

Second, innovation isn’t easy. Although it is easy to call for a Manhattan Project to develop genetically engineered liquid fuels, flexible photovoltaic roofing materials, and passively safe nuclear power plants with proliferation-proof fuel recycling, complete success cannot be guaranteed. What is clean might not be affordable, what is affordable might not be sustainable, what is sustainable might not be scalable. Besides, the availability of materials, the distribution of wind and solar energy, the preferences of communities, not to mention the crotchety laws of thermodynamics can derail even the most promising dreams.

So don’t expect to find all the answers here. What you will find is thoughtful discussion on the numerous dimensions of the innovation process that must be taken into account when designing a research and development program that is informed by the experience of people who have extensive experience in the U.S. Congress, the World Bank, Harvard’s School of Engineering and Applied Science, Sandia National Lab, Bell Labs, the United Nations, AFL-CIO, and industrial and financial services companies. This rich mix of experience is exactly what is needed to create an effective energy innovation program.

But the authors in this issue are a tiny piece of an impressive national brainstorming effort directed at unlocking the secrets of innovation and applying the lessons to government and private sector efforts. Although many share a desperate sense of urgency to push new technologies into the market, using our financial and intellectual resources efficiently is as important in designing energy innovation programs as it is in using energy. We should learn from the history of the last great energy groundswell, which followed the energy crisis of the 1970s.

I worked for renewable energy advocacy and industry groups during that period and was a cheerleader for many of the Carter administration’s initiatives. I learned that sound energy policy requires more than good intentions. My own ignorance of energy markets, the technology development process, the minefields of scaling up, material costs, manufacturing realities, and the financial ingenuity that enables people to turn incentives into scams made me a recruit in an army of true believers who did not give birth to a solar revolution. Instead, that period in energy policy is often remembered as the age of the ill-begotten Synthetic Fuels Corporation, which is ritualistically invoked by market purists as a reason why government should be kept at a safe distance from the energy business.

Unfortunately, in spite of compelling economic, environmental, and national security motivation to do something about energy, the private sector investment in energy innovation is anemic. And in recent decades, the federal government has not done much better. That seems to be changing with the Obama administration, so the next priority is to spend that money wisely. A wealth of high-quality analysis is being directed at this goal. Indeed, presidential science advisor John Holdren and energy secretary Steven Chu were leaders in this effort before they entered the government. Now they must work to see that the best of this analysis informs congressional action.

A survey of some of the group efforts that deserve to be heeded could begin at the National Academies, where the America’s Energy Future project, chaired by former Princeton University president Harold T. Shapiro, is a massive effort with dozens of expert committee members looking at the overall technology challenge as well as focused efforts on specific energy sources. Another influential effort has been organized by the Bipartisan Policy Center, a think tank founded by fromer senators Howard Baker, Tom Daschle, Bob Dole, and George Mitchell. Its National Commission on Energy Policy, launched in 2002 and originally co-chaired by John Holdren, has sponsored research by other organizations such as the work that is the source of the article by Joel S. Yudken and Andrea M. Bassi in this issue and a review of energy innovation systems by the Consortium for Science, Policy and Outcomes at Arizona State University.

Innumerable other efforts are also at work. The Brookings Institution developed a proposal for a group of Energy Discovery-Innovation Institutes. The National Research Council’s Board on Science, Technology, and Economic Policy is providing guidance on the development of the solar electricity industry. The Information Technology and Innovation Foundation is exploring how lessons from other high-tech sectors can be applied to the renewable energy industry. The Council on Competitiveness is holding a National Energy Summit & International Dialogue.

Numerous universities have ambitious multidisciplinary efforts devoted to energy and innovation. A list of programs that deserve attention should include Harvard’s Energy Technology Innovation Policy group, the MIT Energy Initiative, Berkeley’s Energy and Resources Group, a number of programs in Carnegie Mellon’s Engineering and Public Policy program, Princeton’s Energy Group, and Stanford’s Global Climate and Energy Project. And of course the Department of Energy’s national labs have research programs in every conceivable energy source and technology.

An understandable concern about this onslaught of policy analysis is that we’ll end up with Hamlet directing our innovation efforts and that no practical progress will be made while we second guess ourselves at every turn. But that is not a real danger because the R&D is moving ahead at the same time. While some people at the universities and the national labs are pondering questions of institutional design and program priorities, many more of their colleagues are doing the essential science and engineering work that will build the foundation for new energy technologies. This work should not stop while we explore how to build the connections throughout the complex network of research, development, demonstration, and deployment, and then on into marketing, acceptance, and effective use.

It’s an enormously complex and critically important endeavor. Why would we expect it to be easy?

Cite this Article

Finneran, Kevin. “Why Is This So Hard?” Issues in Science and Technology 26, no. 1 (Fall 2009).

Vol. XXVI, No. 1, Fall 2009