In Search of Energy Innovation Role Models

We have compelling reasons to drive for clean, cheap energy, but we lack the technology to get there today. Threats of climate change, national competitiveness and energy security (OK, “clean, cheap, domestic energy”) all contribute to the urgency of this innovation challenge. Given the scale of the challenge, coupled with the dire consequences of not succeeding, it is only natural that we’d look for reassurance and guidance from historical success stories of large-scale innovation.

Most frequently mentioned are the Apollo Project (“land a man on the moon by the end of the decade”), and the Manhattan Project (“develop nuclear weapons before our enemies”). They are attractive because they had urgent time tables, required outside-the-box innovation, and most importantly, as measured by their stated goals, were wildly successful. They provide some confidence that we (or maybe even just the President) need only to make the decision, and it will happen!

Many have also pointed out the flaws in these analogies. Characterizing them as self-contained projects that didn’t require deep changes to our national infrastructure, economy and behavior patterns, many have cautioned that we need to be careful viewing these as models for economy-wide energy transformation (for a good discussion check out the intro to “Technology Policy and Innovation” by Mowery, Nelson and Martin).

As an alternative, Prof. John Sterman at MIT has pointed to the Civil Rights movement as a better analogy, especially related to the climate change . While it offers some important lessons of the interplay between shifting public sentiment, leadership and government policy, it doesn’t offer us any guidance on how to address the underlying energy innovation challenge.

While we could start a process to catalog the problems of every historical precedent, its probably simpler to step back and observe that as a nation we’ve never before consciously undertaken an effort:

  • to overhaul something that touches every part of our economy
  • on a fixed schedule
  • lacking the required technology

So we’re left with looking for guidance from imperfect matches, which is OK as long as we understand that’s what we’re doing. And since we’re in uncharted and dangerous waters, I believe its still important to take any help we can get.

Tom Friedman has talked about needing a “Million Manhattan Projects”, capturing the need to invest in a many technical approaches in parallel. And this mental framework nicely complements the work done by many groups to analyze historical US innovation successes in agriculture, health and IT (again, see Mowery, et al for a good summary). In other words, lets not think of this as a single thread from R&D to production, but a number of parallel threads, each of which needs to be optimized.

Interestingly, this mindset brings us back to WW II, where the US government pursued a wide array of approaches to different innovation challenges. An amazing collaboration with the auto companies produced new airplane designs, which were produced at record rates. A public-private-university collaboration housed at MIT developed RADAR, fundamentally altering the effectiveness of German submarines. Partially backed by public funding, Goodyear created the first high-volume, low-cost synthetic rubber. And with the US military as a driving customer, Merck and other private pharmaceutical companies massively improved the effectiveness of penicillin, while ramping production over 100 times previous levels. What’s nice about these example is that they each use a different model of public-private partnership, and that they run the full lifecycle from R&D through large-scale production.

And, of course, we return to the Manhattan Project, which, viewed through this lens, is no longer an innovation strategy unto itself, but is a specific approach to one innovation challenge in a broad portfolio of approaches and challenges.

The suggests an interesting approach to our situation, where we have a large number of separate technologies, each with their own innovation lifecycle. Instead of looking for a historical analogy to the whole problem, we can take each technology and look for historical guidance on how to move it forward. We can look at solar, wind, smart grid, CCS, electrical storage, nuclear, automotive power, jet power, etc, and for each one examine the state of the technology, public and private investment, and hurdles to broader production and adoption. We can look for similar historical situations and what worked or didn’t, or we may decide that some are without historical precedent.

The result wouldn’t be a million Manhattan Projects, but maybe something like two Manhattan Projects, four Polio Eradication Campaigns, three IT Revolutions, a WW II Aircraft Miracle, and a few hundred thousand Internet Startups, four of five of which might hit the big time.

Through this process we can approach the type of roadmap that Weiss and Bonvillian describe in Structuring an Energy Technology Revolution. With such a roadmap our policy and public investments can become more direct and organized, and we will have a better framework for measuring our progress. In an upcoming post I’ll give some examples of how this might look.