The energy revolution, in perspective

Few would argue anymore that we need an revolution in the ways we produce and consume energy–both for global security and climate change. And there have been plenty of calls for a Moonshot or Manhattan project that would solve the problem (e.g., the ethanol mousetrap).  But two very critical and very sobering facts of life that must be faced when talking about innovations in energy.

First, that no single solution will save the day. Princeton scientists Pacala and Socolow crystallized this discussion with their framework of "Stabilization Wedges" and their calculations of how much impact could be expected from changes in existing  energy technologies. In short: no one technological innovation will account for the complete solution. Indeed, the authors identify 15 independent technological regimes that could and should be addressed.

Second and more sobering, is that any one solution faces astounding resistance.  Recent news brought another example of just how difficult change can be in established systems.  On Nov. 14th, ConEd cut the last line of Edison’s original Pearl Street Station network, opened Sept. 14th, 1882.

The last snip of Con Ed’s direct current system will take place at 10 East 40th Street, near the Mid-Manhattan Library. That building, like the thousands of other direct current users that have been transitioned over the last several years, now has a converter installed on the premises that can take alternating electricity from the Con Ed power grid and adapt it on premises. Until now, Con Edison had been converting alternating to direct current for the customers who needed it — old buildings on the Upper East Side and Upper West Side that used direct current for their elevators for example. The subway, which has its own converters, also provides direct current through its third rail, in large part because direct current electricity was the dominant system in New York City when the subway first developed out of the early trolley cars. 

Edison’s Direct Current (DC) system was dethroned within a decade of its introduction by Westinghouse’s (and Tesla’s) Alternating Current (AC) system and yet, here we are, 125 years later, finally and literally pulling the plug on that original system. Granted, it’s for a small area of New York City.  But if it was such a small area–why did it take so long to make the change?

The entrepreneurs and venture capitalists of the Silicon Valley are turning their attention to energy and climate change with the full intent of revolutionizing those sectors with the same modus operandi that enabled them to lead the information revolution.   But the circumstances are quite different.  Energy is a brownfield–the installed systems are as difficult to resect from existing physical infrastructure (buildings, homes, and automobiles) as they are from the political infrastructure (from municipalities, states, and Washington). 

We may need revolutionary new technologies to save us from our old ones, but we also need revolutionary new ways of changing. The revolution, if it comes, will come by changing the way we change.

1 thought on “The energy revolution, in perspective

  1. Tackling innovation in energy

    Andy Hargadon is a lucid thinker about innovation. His book, How Breakthroughs Happen, is one of the best innovation books of recent years. On his infrequent blog, he writes today about the challenge of innovation in energy:
    The entrepreneurs and ventu…

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