Against Technology Tribalism

Why We Need Innovation to Make Energy Clean, Cheap and Reliable

The following is a speech delivered at the Energy Innovation Conference in Washington, DC, on January 29, 2013.

About once a month we at the Breakthrough Institute get an email or, as often, a carefully hand-typed letter, from someone who politely if sternly informs us that they have invented the solution to all of the world's energy needs. This incredible technology, they explain, has none of the problems that plague other energy technologies. It's so cheap as to be almost free. It emits zero pollution. It's safe. And it's totally reliable.

Unfortunately, they explain, the investors they've shown their design to just don't get it. They are writing in the hopes that we might get it — seeing as we’re committed to paradigm shifts and all — and help them to secure modest up-front financing required to demonstrate this miracle for all of the world to see.

It's easy to laugh, but isn't there something wonderful about the zeal of the entrepreneur? Wasn't Steve Jobs every bit the zealot for Apple products — and wasn't that part of what made him such a revolutionary?

But in the world of public policy and politics, such technology dogmatism can be toxic. It's one thing to believe that your technology will triumph in the market. It's quite another to believe that only your technology merits public support.

And yet that's the attitude that has plagued energy policy for the last 40 years. Much of the Left says little to no innovation is required because existing solar and wind technologies can provide 100 percent of the world's electricity. Much of the Right says there's no justification for government support of innovation beyond basic science because fossil fuels and nuclear energy are just fine as they are.

The tell of the technology tribalist is his insistence that little to no innovation is needed for his technology to scale.

Many date technology tribalism back to when Reagan took Carter's solar panels off the White House. But the origins go back to 1976, when the anti-nuclear activist Amory Lovins wrote an article for Foreign Affairs in which he argued that even if all the meltdown and waste risks were solved, we should still oppose nuclear energy because it was centralized power generation. Decentralized solar, wind and energy efficiency were more than enough, renewables advocates would go on to argue for the next 35 years, to meet all of the world's energy needs.

By the late 1980s, environmentalists and progressives pointed to climate change as yet another reason to switch to renewables. The response from conservatives was mostly knee-jerk. "If the climate science says we have to power civilization on rickety and expensive renewables," they effectively said, "then I'm not buying your climate science!"

But as climate scientists and energy analysts did the math, the case for a renewables-only path to dealing with climate change became increasingly untenable. Energy consumption will double by mid-century and quadruple by the end of the century, as the global poor become rich and the human population rises to nine billion. The idea that all that new energy could come from renewables alone increasingly became viewed as ridiculous.

And so over the last few years, a growing number of green voices have emerged calling for more nuclear, including James Lovelock, the originator of the Gaia hypothesis, NASA climate scientist James Hansen, Whole Earth Catalogue founder Stewart Brand, and the left-wing newspaper columnist George Monbiot.

And while polarization has unquestionably shrunk the moderate middle, there remains a broad majority of Americans who reject the technology tribalism of Right and Left and have come instead to embrace the innovation of all energy sources. If you cut past particular technologies and instead go to values, you find a large percentage of Americans — and, we would venture to say, of all humans as well — who want energy that is increasingly cheap, clean, reliable, and safe.

This is an embrace not of a particular thing — solar panels, nuclear reactors, fracking, wind farms — but rather of a process of human development. It's an embrace of technological innovation, not of particular technologies as they exist today.

This posture is consonant with the development of our species. Our history is the history of having moved from scarce, dirty, unreliable and dangerous energy sources to increasingly abundant, cleaner, safer and more reliable ones. Wood and charcoal fires were first replaced by coal-fired steam power and then by coal and oil-fired electricity. This transition saved millions of lives that would have been lost to respiratory diseases, and allowed depleted forests to grow back. Fossil fuels allowed agriculture to become more efficient, sparing huge amounts of land. Instead of animals providing organic fertilizer, people used fertilizer derived from natural gas and tractors powered by fossil energy.

Switching from steam to electricity to power factories saved even more lives, and coal electricity has became vastly cheaper, safer and more efficient.

At the same time, societies started moving to electricity from hydro-electric dams, natural gas, and nuclear energy — all vastly cleaner than coal. Their environmental impacts can be significant, but all pale to the health and environmental impacts of coal mining and burning.

Energy transitions depend to a large extent on a country's natural resources and political culture. But what's universal is that the publics in growing economies keep demanding cheaper, cleaner, more reliable, and safer technologies.

We need a broad innovation agenda that transcends technology tribalism, technology fads, and our boom and bust approach to policymaking. We should be pushing hard on all of our energy technologies to make them cheaper, cleaner, safer and more reliable. This is the opportunity for President Obama and Congress over the next four years, and the challenge to all of us over the next 40.

Now the question turns to how we do should this innovation — the question that will be addressed by panelists today. Is it by giving entrepreneurs grants as though the government were the Ford Foundation? Is it by only funding basic science out of a belief that innovation proceeds in a linear way from basic science to demonstration to commercialization? Should we copy the successes of the DoD, which acts as a demanding customer of advanced technologies?

We would suggest that the first step is to take a cold hard look at the facts.

In an effort as large as the one of quadrupling global energy consumption by 2100, and getting most or all of that energy from low and zero carbon energy sources, there is no room here for dogmatism. The technology tribalists have created a negative-sum game. They have weakened the ability of Republicans and Democrats to work together. Innovation advocates must appeal to reasonable conservatives and liberals with an all of the above agenda that is focused on making all energy technologies cheaper, cleaner, more reliable and safer.

Focus on solving problems. Innovation is always about solving problems in the real world, not about proceeding in a linear way from basic science to commercialization. Where the technology tribalist waves away the problems with his preferred energy source and exaggerates the problems of other technologies, the energy innovationist must take a cold hard look at the challenges each technology faces so that appropriate policy measures can be implemented. This requires acknowledging all energy technologies are subsidized in one way or another, often with the aim of increasing their production, not accelerating innovation. We should ask whether there would be a way to rearrange these subsidies to support innovation — aka, problem solving — rather than production.

Embrace a wider set of solutions. Where the Right is focused on basic research, the Left is focused on deployment of renewables. Both are wrong in applying a one-size fits all approach to technologies that are in wildly varying stages of development, each with unique problems. No serious innovation scholar believes we got microchips through the government providing only support for basic science, nor do fracking pioneers believe the shale gas production tax credit was the most important policy support available to them. Microchips required aggressive government contracting over multiple generations and iterations, and 20 years separated the first massive hydraulic shale fracture from Mitchell Energy’s commercial breakthrough in West Texas.

Accelerate the failure rate. All technology successes stories are preceded by decades of failure. The key is to have a high rate of trial and error. This may require changing subsidies. Did we really need to pay for Solyndra to build a whole factory? Could we instead have used the money to pay private firms to demonstrate smaller batches advanced solar panels, used them, and then repeated this cycle? This procurement model is how we got advanced jet turbines and microchips. There is a direct relationship between producer and user, and the speed of innovation quickens at lower costs. When it comes to energy, the relationship between producers and users is mediated by a thicket of regulations and subsidies. The billions spent in the stimulus had the goal of creating jobs in the short-term, not driving innovation over the long-term. If we are going to embrace failure as the key to success, we can acknowledge that not all failures are created equal.

Increase knowledge spillover. Shales were just one of the unconventional gas resources supported by federal policy, and the public-private research collaboration was evaluated and updated annually by FERC to respect dynamic industry priorities. Mitchell's top geologist told us that the real progress came after Mitchell invited in DOE and GRI, shared its research, and invited in other explorers. Mitchell helped organize a day of presentations on shale fracking at a local library. DOE and sent over advanced underground mapping technologies from Sandia National Labs, and a team of crack programmers, many of whom now work for private companies in the area including Haliburton. We should seek to increase, not decrease, knowledge spill-over when it comes to promising clean energy innovations that are still a long way off from being ready to scale up to displace fossil fuels.

Reform energy subsidies. We need to subsidize innovation, not production. Innovation policy should look more like DoD procurement than agricultural subsidies. The American Wind Energy Association should be applauded for proposing a phase down of wind’s production tax credit. This is an unusually mature response from an industry association. Now it's incumbent on all of us to consider how to continue innovation of wind technologies even as production subsidies are phased out. Similarly, we should consider direct procurement of advanced technologies, not just demonstration, since as I noted before, it is this procurement process that increases trial and error and has allowed for the development of such things as cheap microchips and jet turbines.

We should pursue all of this while recognizing that we live in a pluralistic society where people have different values and visions of the good society. That means we won't get everything we want, and will have to compromise. In the world of energy, our values come into conflict — or appear to come into conflict, since whether a technology is safe and clean is highly subjective.

We may like to imagine a 100% renewable or 100% nuclear future, but pinning technologies against each other undercuts innovation across the board. The question at hand is not which technologies need innovation — they all do. The question is how to attack each technology’s idiosyncratic innovation needs. That’s what we’re here to discuss today.

Photo credits: AP Images and Flickr user Takver