Romm Calls for Breakthroughs - By Another Name

Wind power is on the cusp of becoming a major energy supply source for the U.S. According to a recent report from the Bush administration, wind could provide 300 gigawatts by 2030 for just under 2 cents a day per household. Joe Romm has a piece in Salon calling for policy that will nudge this very advanced technology into large-scale deployment.

Less than 40 years ago, wind turbines were no match for large central-station electric power plants. Romm says they were "crude derivatives from airplane propellers and were noisy and inefficient." But in a relatively short period of time, the state of wind power technology has changed dramatically:

Over the past quarter-century, significant aerodynamic improvements in blade design have largely solved both problems and brought down the cost of electricity from wind power by 10 percent a year (until recently).

What factors lead to these stunning, rapid improvements in wind power's price and performance? Major government investments in R&D were the key. When the U.S. began looking to wind power as a solution to the 1970s energy crisis, federal funding focused on large machines that operated at constant speeds. But from 1974 to 1981, the U.S. Federal Wind Energy Program funded an ambitious R&D program that lead to massive breakthroughs in turbine construction. A move to smaller turbines, larger blades, and other design improvements led to dramatic price decreases: in 1980, it wind energy cost 50 cents per kilowatt hour; by 1993, the price had plummeted to 5 to 7 cents per kilowatt hour.

Romm acknowledges that government support was what turned the fledgling, clunky wind turbine into the sleek, aerodynamic powerhouse it is today, but at the same time, he points to wind as an example of why government support is no longer necessary. The way Romm sees it, R&D has already given us the technologies we need. He is one of the most outspoken critics of ramping of government investment in R&D, and appeals for increases in federal spending on clean energy technology irk him to no end:

[L]et me say one more time, the country doesn't need a $20 billion annual program to develop new energy technologies. I'd take $2 billion, but frankly would be happy to live with the existing R&D budget if you gave me the cap-and-trade system plus some strong government efficiency and renewable standards, redesigned electricity regulations, and $10 billion a year in demonstration and deployment programs.

This kind of thinking misses integrated process in which technological breakthroughs occur. In the real world, innovation occurs at all levels of the research, development, and deployment process. One of the most important advances in wind turbine technology was an improvement in blade design that boosted performance and drove down price. How did it happen? The Danish government made large investments to deploy new turbines off-shore. Breakthroughs often occur when we learn by doing. To call for investments in deployment while railing against "the breakthrough crowd," as Romm refers to us, creates a false dichotomy that mischaracterizes the way advances in technology actually occur.

The "signigicant aerodynamic improvements" - in layman's language, technological breakthroughs - Romm praises for bringing wind to where it is today - on the brink of massive deployment - were the direct result of massive government investment. And yet he wants us to ease off technological development and shun the idea of "breakthroughs" - a foolish strategy that underestimates the immensity of the challenge, which recent reports suggest is at least twice as large as the IPCC has led us to believe.

The history of wind power proves that government investment can advance technology by leaps and bounds in a short period of time. If the Reagan administration hadn't abandoned Carter's investments in renewable energy alternatives, who knows how far we could have come in the past 30 years. The good news is, it's not too late. If we aggressively deploy every shred of clean energy technology we've got, as well as invest heavily in advancing and refining younger technologies, then we stand a chance at meeting this enormous challenge. It deserves nothing less.