How to achieve energy innovation

Two experts explain that, to achieve the kind of innovation in energy technology necessary to address climate change, the U.S. needs a different policy approach.

Heard an interesting talk about energy innovation today by Charles Weiss and William B. Bonvillian, authors of Structuring an Energy Technology Revolution, a new book from The MIT Press. In their talk, Weiss and Bonvillian discussed the challenges the U.S. faces in achieving the kind of energy innovation needed to address climate change.

Some key points from the talk:

  • Americans have a “covered wagon culture” (think pioneers heading west to new territories) that, in innovation, involves finding open territory and creating radical innovations. We’ve got an economy that operates at the technology frontier, observed Bonvillian. Our innovation system does biotech — but we don’t go back and innovate in health care delivery.
  • However, innovation in a complex, established sector like energy is much more complex — and requires a different approach to policy, he said.
  • To address the challenge, the U.S. needs a public strategy for energy technology that should be very large in scale and scope — comparable to the Manhattan Project in scale and scope, but not in form or organization, Weiss said.  Because energy technology involves innovation in an established sector, “you want to organize it around obstacles to market launch,” involve public-private partnerships and be as technology-neutral as possible, Weiss said. That, he explained, is rather different from the traditional “pipeline” approach to U.S. technology policy, which stresses basic research as the key ingredient to radical innovation.