Soapbox Post

While the climate change policy has struggled beleaguered to the finish line, what will it take to actually spur an energy revolution? A revolution that is ripe with inventions and innovations penetrating the market, shaking up entrenched technologies, and changing the way we the people relate to energy?
Charles Weiss, School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University, visited CSPO last month to share the thoughts explored in his book Structuring an Energy Technology Revolution, co-authored by veteran of the Hill, William Bonvillian. They believe our addiction to fossil fuels and arrogant neglect of unsexy problems bound up in energy infrastructure now require focused and organized attention on stimulating real innovation in energy. A national effort akin to a Manhattan Project or Apollo Program on energy is urgent.
The origins of the book are relatively straightforward. How to teach innovation policy if you don’t subscribe to the simple formula guiding basic research: money in
--marvelous innovation out?

The trick with this marvel machine is that there are priorities set at the get go, political fights over allocations, decisions at the lab bench that could have been made otherwise, and often questionable social benefits as outcomes. Technological innovation is not a simple equation but a delicate balance of interests, support structures, incentives, cash flows, personalities and true miracles.
Since, unlike other miracles of the modern age, energy is hard to bottle and polish, Weiss sees few industrial players coordinating efforts in such a way to solve the sticky problems faced by the energy sector. While IBM is investing upwards of 3 billion in the Smart Grid and Google wants to play too, large coordinated efforts to address basic research have not been launched. Certainly the problems surrounding energy are complex and looming enough to warrant serious investments.

For Weiss and Bonvillian, a major federal research and development program is necessary to stimulate innovation. They believe market based incentives are not enough and propose a research and development framework that treats different kinds of energy technologies differently. Some already have niche markets and need help scaling up (like LED lighting). Others are socially problematic (biofuels, nuclear) or require large and expensive demonstration projects (carbon sequestration). Each poses particular policy challenges and needs unique financial support.


The discussions at CSPO on his integrated policy framework ranged from curiosity over the nascent ARPA for energy to how to incorporate the desires and values of everyday people into energy policy. There was a particularly lively discussion about the need for a roadmap for the future of energy. We exchanged ideas about the importance of supporting societal learning of energy policy and how a strategic plan for basic research- and decisions around energy futures- should be based on public deliberation.



About the Author:  Cynthia Selin is an assistant research professor at CSPO & CNS-ASU.
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