Energy, innovation and elephants

There’s nothing like money to bring out the dogma in people, and there’s nothing, if not money, in the $150B energy innovation plan of the Obama administration.The ensuing dogma surfaces around how to best spend that money.  On the one side are those arguing that we need to invest in deploying existing technologies (the latest in solar, wind, and energy efficiency)—on the other side are those arguing such federal investments in existing technologies would starve the basic research activities that will bring us the truly breakthrough technologies we need.  Nowhere is this debate more starkly represented than in the (barely) civil dialog between Joe Romm and the Breakthrough Institute.  Andy Revkin, of the NYT and his blog, Dot Earth, describes this debate:

Outside parties have been choosing the interpretation that suits various agendas.  Joe Romm of the Center for American Progress has been in a running battle with the  Breakthrough Institute over this. Mr. Romm, who emphasizes the need for large-scale  deployment of existing non-polluting energy systems, insists that the pledge has always appropriately included deployment. The  Breakthrough team warns that while deployment of today’s technologies is vital, if money for deployment is included in the $150-billion pie, that dangerously  reduces the amount of money for laboratories pursuing vital advances on photovoltaics or energy storage and for big tests of technologies that must be demonstrated at large scale — like capturing carbon dioxide from power plants.

The debate, as Revkin points out, is in how the money should be allocated between the activities of basic research, development, demonstration projects, and deployment.  Do we need more basic research to identify new technological opportunities, or more support for building real demonstration projects and, ultimately, supporting broader deployment of existing and tested solutions?

As a student of innovation only recently arrived to the energy sector (and energy policy), I’m riveted by the intensity of the debate, and the not-so-hidden agendas of its participants. Certainly the scientists arguing for more basic research are concerned about the best solutions for the challenge of climate change and energy security, but they must recognize their arguments are also self-serving.  At stake is not only the windfall of $150B to be spent on energy innovation over the next ten years, but also science’s perceived role (and thus legitimate claim to federal funding) in solving society’s problems.  And while Joe Romm visibly argues for deployment of the existing but underutilized clean technologies, others like GE, IBM, and the energy behemoths are wandering the congressional offices arguing for federal support of their own technologies and projects.

Each are, of course, right in there own way. There are great stories of basic research that has opened new technological frontiers—penicillin, the space program, the Manhattan project, ARPA and the internet—which proponents of basic research don’t hesitate to reference in support of their arguments.  In fact, the Department of Energy’s ARPA-E program references the original ARPA’s initial development of the internet to such potentially similar breakthroughs in energy.  On the other side, there is a large inventory of promising technologies that, without a leveling of the playing field through federal investments, cannot compete economically against incumbent energy technologies heavily subsidized for 100 years through federal and state policies.

As the two sides square off, I am struck by the relevance of the old story of the blind men and the elephant (the poem by John Godfrey Saxe is below).  Simply put, truth is an elephant surrounded by blind men.  Each man, in feeling a part of the elephant, comes to their own conclusions about the nature of the whole.

The process of innovation—moving from initial insight to its broad adoption and ultimate institutionalization—has as many features and facets as an elephant.  Anyone arguing that innovation is about the generation of insights from basic research—and that demonstration and deployment should be left to the private sector—is basing their view of the whole on the touch of one end of the elephant. The same for anyone arguing for deployment without investing in further basic research.

6a00d83454bf2069e2011572538445970bIn the Buddhist version of this story, Buddha explains:

“Just so are these preachers and scholars holding various views blind and unseeing…. In their ignorance they are by nature quarrelsome, wrangling, and disputatious, each maintaining reality is thus and thus.”

The truth, ultimately, lies in better understanding the interdependent relationships between these different research and development activities—a truth that gets further away the more these debates rage.

Addendum 8/03/09

Technology Review reports today on a symposium held last week by the National Academies in DC and on the topic of scaling up the solar industry. The debate between investing in basic research and investing in deploying existing technologies was unavoidable:

In the past year, the federal government has announced new investments in research into “transformational” solar technologies that represent radical departures from existing crystalline-silicon or thin-film technologies that are already on the market. The investments include new energy-research centers sponsored by the Department of Energy and a new agency called ARPA-Energy, modeled after the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. Such investments are prompted by the fact that conventional solar technologies have historically produced electricity that’s far more expensive than electricity from fossil
fuels.In fact, Energy Secretary Steven Chu has said that a breakthrough is needed for photovoltaic technology to make a significant contribution to reducing greenhouse gases. Researchers are exploring solar cells that use very cheap materials or even novel physics that could dramatically increase efficiency, which could bring down costs.

And yet industry experts were on hand to counter this perspective:

…industry experts at the Washington symposium argued that new technologies will take decades to come to market, judging from how long commercialization of other solar technologies has taken. Meanwhile, says Zweibel, conventional technologies “have made the kind of progress that we were hoping futuristic technologies could make.” For example, researchers have sought to bring the cost of solar power to under $1 per watt, and as of the first quarter of this year one company, First Solar, has done this.

Basic research does drive innovation. So does deployment.  Elephant, anyone?


The Blind Men and the Elephant: A Hindoo Fable
John Godfrey Saxe

It was six men of Indostan
To learning much inclined,
Who went to see the Elephant
(Though all of them were blind),
That each by observation
Might satisfy his mind.

The First approach’d the Elephant,
And happening to fall
Against his broad and sturdy side,
At once began to bawl:
“God bless me! but the Elephant
Is very like a wall!”

The Second, feeling of the tusk,
Cried, -“Ho! what have we here
So very round and smooth and sharp?
To me ’tis mighty clear
This wonder of an Elephant
Is very like a spear!”

The Third approached the animal,
And happening to take
The squirming trunk within his hands,
Thus boldly up and spake:
“I see,” quoth he, “the Elephant
Is very like a snake!”

The Fourth reached out his eager hand,
And felt about the knee.
“What most this wondrous beast is like
Is mighty plain,” quoth he,
“‘Tis clear enough the Elephant
Is very like a tree!”

The Fifth, who chanced to touch the ear,
Said: “E’en the blindest man
Can tell what this resembles most;
Deny the fact who can,
This marvel of an Elephant
Is very like a fan!”

The Sixth no sooner had begun
About the beast to grope,
Then, seizing on the swinging tail
That fell within his scope,
“I see,” quoth he, “the Elephant
Is very like a rope!”

And so these men of Indostan
Disputed loud and long,
Each in his own opinion
Exceeding stiff and strong,
Though each was partly in the right,
And all were in the wrong!


So oft in theologic wars,
The disputants, I ween,
Rail on in utter ignorance
Of what each other mean,
And prate about an Elephant
Not one of them has seen!