Breakthroughs for an Ecomodernist Future

Energy Access, Radical Innovation, and the Land Impacts of Energy

Another summer, another wealth of research from the Breakthrough Institute thanks to our annual Breakthrough Generation research fellowship. This summer, the Breakthrough Generation Fellows examined the role of development banks in funding energy projects in poor countries, the land footprint of energy, and the role of the state in innovating around complex technologies.

Each year, the Breakthrough Institute works with 5 to 10 young scholars to better understand energy and environmental challenges. Founded in 2007, Breakthrough Generation is a reflection of Breakthrough’s adherence to the SIMs (scientific/intellectual movements) school of social change, which argues that understanding the challenges faced by the next generation cannot occur without participation from the next generation.

Research that was conducted during Breakthrough Generation has proven critical to some of Breakthrough’s most groundbreaking and influential reports. The publications Where Good Technologies Come From, Beyond Boom and Bust, How to Make Nuclear Cheap, and Lighting, Electricity, Steel and others all began as summer research projects. This year was a continuation of that commitment.

Since the 2014 release of the report Our High-Energy Planet, Breakthrough has been very interested in how energy powers human development and modernization in emerging economies. But what we lacked was an understanding of how much international development banks spend on energy for development in emerging economies. Breakthrough also sought to understand how this money was spent and why. In an effort to answer these questions, Breakthrough Generation Fellow Shairya Devi looked at nearly 30 years of energy projects funded by the World Bank. This data will add empirics to the framework outlined in Our High-Energy Planet and will help us better understand how energy investment fits into the broader trends of modernization, urbanization, and industrialization in poor countries today.

One of Breakthrough’s areas of greatest influence is our popularization of the role of the state in driving technological innovation. Following our report Where Good Technologies Come From, Breakthrough has tried to understand how innovation policy can be optimized to accelerate the development of clean energy technologies. More recently, we’ve also began to look at what the state can do for a wider range of ‘decoupling’ technologies, such as GM seeds or precision agriculture. Beyond ‘public R&D,’ Canaan Reeverts and Jack Shaked investigated the ways that the nature of different technologies determines what kinds of innovation and investment are needed for meaningful progress. Using case studies of seeds, tractors, turbines, and solar panels, this project shows how simplified ‘models’ of technological innovation can be counterproductive to policy makers.

Policy makers looking at energy technologies are often focused on cost and carbon emissions, but there are other environmental impacts that are mostly ignored, particularly land use. When looking into the literature on how much land is required to generate electricity from different energy sources, we found that many were simply back-of-the-envelope calculations, lacking real-world evidence for their assumptions. In an effort to offer a pragmatic vision of a high-energy, low-footprint planet, Breakthrough has been conducting research into the landscape impacts of different energy technologies. To that end, Matthew MacCaughey and Crystal Yeh conducted primary research into the land footprint of wind farms and nuclear power plants in the United States. These findings will contribute to an ongoing meta-analysis of land use intensity being completed by Breakthrough analysts, aimed at publication this fall.

Breakthrough Generation 2015 wrapped up Wednesday, August 12, with presentations by the fellows to a close group of friends, funders, and allies of the institute. We expect many of our fellows will lead the way for pragmatic thinking on today’s toughest challenges. We wish them the best of luck on their next chapter and are grateful for their hard work this summer.