The ethanol mousetrap (and moonshot)

As Ethanol, the solution du jour for our energy needs, comes into the spotlight, it reveals itself to be as realistic a near-term solution (and long-term panacea) as its predecessor, hydrogen. Ethanol will not now, nor may it ever, provide the energy independence people seek. As Julia Olmstead writes in Counterpunch:

Improving fuel efficiency in cars by just 1 mile per gallon — a gain possible with proper tire inflation — would cut fuel consumption equal to the total amount of ethanol federally mandated for production in 2012.

Many others have made this same point before. What’s interesting, to this innovation-obsessed blogger, is the underlying impact that the concept of ethanol and other innovations has on the innovation process itself–especially when that process requires public effort and political will. What does the thought of a simple, clean solution just around the corner do to our ability to act with the solutions we hold in our hands (like raising mileage standards by 1 mpg)?

If a bird in hand is worth two in the bush, why is a technological solution in hand worth less than one around the corner? Is it the promise that this next one will take less effort and will to implement than the ones we have available today?

That promise of the better mousetrap that sells itself undermines more than just green technologies. It undermines innovation in organizations big and small. The possibility that tomorrow’s idea will be easier to implement than todays keeps us tolerating the status quo. It’s just like Annie sings: “The sun will come out, tomorrow. You can bet your bottom dollar.” Or was she pushing solar?