Innovation, implementation and efficiency


Often, innovation (of new/improved energy technologies) and implementation (of existing energy technologies) are presented as if they are binary choices. Lomborg is a champion of that kind of rhetoric.

They are not: Both are needed, and both serve a different purpose (or at least, they are different, and complementary means towards the common goal of transforming our energy system towards a more sustainable one).

Innovation doesn’t actually reduce emissions. Rather, it is expected to allow for deep, fast and/or cheap emission reductions in the long term. Its pay-off though is inherently uncertain.

Implementation is needed to get started on emission reductions. It’s the cumulative emissions that are of concern, so earlier cuts in emissions are more useful to climate stabilization than similar cuts made later.

Counting on innovation as the only mitigation strategy risks postponing doing anything until a silver bullet comes along that may never will. Hence this strategy is sometimes referred to as fairy dust.

Counting on implementation as the only mitigation strategy risks high costs to achieve needed emission cuts (or an effective inability to reach needed emission cuts, if we don’t want to pay for it). [edited for clarity]


Implementation could pave the way for innovation, by giving a sign that society is clearly embarking on a low carbon path. It makes investing in innovation more worthwhile. The opposite is also possible: Innovation could be stalled if easy (e.g. subsidized) money is made on implementation of current, relatively inefficient technology. That is the pitfall we need to prevent.
OTOH, innovation could make people/businesses hesitant to employ current tech (waiting for next year’s tech may be better, but if you keep saying that until eternity, nothing ever changes).

Some kind of carbon pricing structure (preferably a straight tax and rebate) would spur both innovation and implementation. It could avoid the pitfall mentioned above, which is more prevalent in subsidies.

Technology transfer

It should also be kept in mind that it’s not enough to just support basic innovation research and expecting that society can readily bear the fruits:

The key to this process lies in transitioning from R&D to the market–a stage in business development so perilous that it’s often called the Valley of Death. Transversing it requires an intelligent blend of public and private sector investment, targeting the most promising innovations. (Forbes)

Many promising technologies die in this valley of death, to the ultimate detriment of society who misses out on its benefits. If one pays attention to the whole sequence of technology transfer, it becomes clear that innovation and implementation are different stages in this sequence. For a successful final result both (and what’s in between) are needed, otherwise there’s either no head or no tail.

Postponing implementation risks a “lock-in” situation. Every new power plant that is being built will be used for multiple decades: We are now building the energy infrastructure for the next 50 years. What’s it gonna be? Inertia in the energy system, in the carbon cycle, and in the climate system works against us. The longer we wait, the harder it’s gonna be.

The speed of emission reduction influences the costs: The faster, the more expensive (and/or the more intrusive). There’re limits to how fast we can decarbonize the economy without creating havoc. Since postponing emission reduction means that faster reductions will be needed later on (to achieve the same target), it will add to the costs (and/or the havoc). At the very least, this would offset some of the benefits of (hopefully) having cheaper technology available later on.

Putting all your money on innovation with the expectation of a breakthrough is risky. Energy technologies are improved only gradually, and what it comes down to is a gradual reduction in energy production costs. A reduction of comparative costs could also (and much more swiftly) be achieved by putting a price on carbon (a.k.a. internalizing the real costs of carbon, or getting rid of the hidden subsidy for carbon), and then let the market decide who the winners are going to be.

Implementation versus energy saving

It makes much more sense to put energy savings on the one hand and implementation of sustainable energy on the other hand as interchangeable choices: They both lead directly to lower emissions. As I wrote in a previous blog about population growth and the Kaya identity:

Don’t want to use (and pay for) sustainable energy? Then use less energy.

Don’t want to use less energy? Then use (and pay for) sustainable energy.

Don’t want to do either? Go find another planet.

Note that the last line does not read: “Then throw some money at R&D and hope for the best.” Of course, the optimal course of action is to both reduce energy consumption and increase the use of sustainable energy (and do rigorous R&D); it still wouldn’t make much sense to put all your eggs in one basket.

The result of innovation is almost by definition unknown, as Ken Boulding wrote:

The great uncertainties here are in the area of the future of human knowledge, know-how, and skill. There is a nonexistence theorem about prediction in this area, in the sense that if we could predict what we are going to know at some time in the future, we would not have to wait, for we would know it now. It is not surprising, therefore, that the great technical changes have never been anticipated, neither the development of oil and gas, nor the automobile, nor the computer.

In preparing for the future, therefore, it is very important to have a wide range of options and to think in advance about how we are going to react to the worst cases as well as the best.

And John Mashey has the price winning quote:

Never schedule breakthroughs.

With mt as the runner up, making the case that “insufficient funding slows things down, but excessive funding certainly does not speed things up” regarding innovation and technology transfer:

Ten scientists cannot get a decade’s worth of one scientist’s work done in a year any more than nine women can make a baby in a month.

Based on a comment I made at collide-a-scape (teofilo) on the same topic.  For a different perspective, see e.g. this comment by Heiko on a previous post. He argues that we should invest the limited resources we’re willing to spend on this there where it’ll do the most good, and that R&D fits that bill better than rolling out a bit more of current technology. He does have a point, though to my mind it’s a bit akin to admitting we’re screwed and hoping for the best. I think we still ought to try.

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30 Responses to “Innovation, implementation and efficiency”

  1. harry Says:


    I think the solution is just under our nose: nuclear. France derives 80% of its electricity from the nuclear reactors. Combined with a very efficient reprocessing of the spent fuel, they manage to have the lowest carbon footprint on the globe as far as electricity is concerned. Combined with their sophisticated use of waste heat, they achieve more than can be dreamt of. The concept is proven, it works. Start building!

  2. Tom Fuller Says:

    Harry, I question whether we can build enough nuclear power to solve our problem in the near term future.

    There is another way of dividing this problem up. Using renewable energy sources (possibly including nuclear, depending on the level of religious fervor you have) and improving the efficiency of our current means of generating, distributing and consuming energy.

    The innovation strategies are not the same for each, obviously.

    For renewable energy sources, the technology most likely to reach price parity with fossil fuels is solar power. The improvements needed to make it inexpensive enough to convince die-hard American Republicans that we should use it are well-understood. The complementary technology to make it scalable, grid level storage, is also understood, but farther off.

    The appropriate innovation strategy would be to publicly finance research and development of storage, and offer tax incentives for accelerated deployment and development of solar. This is important as the last generation of fabs for solar cells still has mileage on it, and the owners want to milk the last penny out of it.

    The dilemma nobody talks about (because nobody wants to advertise it) is the first mover’s disadvantage.

  3. Jeff Id Says:


    You’re efforts aren’t popular enough. Welcome to fickle blogland.

    “Counting on implementation only risks high costs”

    Only? – actually you sound like you have nursed from the government checks for too long…. Try private life, challenging in a way that climate science will not be in these decades, with an uncertainty beyond calculation.

  4. Rattus Norvegicus Says:

    Tobis’ quote flows directly from a seminal book on software engineering called “The Mythical Man Month”. Coincidentally, this also plays into Mashey’s “never schedule breakthroughs” line.

    But this is a very good post which explains the problem with the Breakthrough Institute’s position. Yes, we’ll probably need some breakthroughs in sustainable energy and energy efficiency technologies, but this is no reason to avoid beginning to implement what we have right now. You are right that we need to start the job now. Well actually we should have started the job about 30 years ago…

  5. adelady Says:

    The breakthrough idea is actually an argument in favour of early implementation of just about everything. Breakthroughs generally occur as a result of lots of people doing lots of work and lots of thinking. Suddenly, one thought leads to the next level.

    The breakthrough from absolutely nowhere is much less likely. And if it comes, you’re already in a better position to take even more advantage of it.

  6. Bart Says:


    I’ve understood that (at least in Western Europe) on-shore wind is a lot closer to grid parity than solar PV (though that of course depends on location; in sunny California it will be very different than in windy Holland).


    Which efforts are you referring to? You misread my “only” statement (though it was poor wording on my part; will try to fix that): That comment was in reference to the false dichotomy often set-up by people such as Lomborg, that we can do without any current implementation and with only innovation. The converse, if we count on doing only implementation and not innovation, is not a smart route either, is what I was trying to say.

  7. Jeff Id Says:

    There isn’t very much uncertainty in electrical generation science.

    The answer you want is staring you in the eyes.

  8. Roddy Campbell Says:

    Will I be accused again of being obstructionist, Bart, if I comment that what China/India/Africa/Brazil do is more important than what US or EU do? And there is zero point us doing it if they don’t, whatever ‘it’ is.

    I wrote this guest post on Jeff’s site just after the UK election, which probably encapsulates my view on implementation versus innovation, with a bit of politics thrown in.

    How can I embed links in comments here using Firefox? Anyone?

    Specific comments on the above – saying that wind is closer to grid parity than solar pv is an interesting comparison – a donkey yoked to a generator with a carrot on a stick is closer than solar pv.

    You make some interesting points in the post – by this comment ‘Innovation could be stalled if easy (e.g. subsidized) money is made on implementation of current, relatively inefficient technology.’ presumably you mean that governments will have allocated scarce tax dollars (or feed-in tariff dollars) to implementation instead of r&d? Otherwise I can’t see what your mechanism is.

    Overall I’m with heiko.

  9. Roddy Campbell Says:

    And Bart, respect for acknowledging throughout that implementation is not cheap, let alone cost-free, as some Magical Thinkers like to dream.

    Tom – first-mover disadvantage, thank you for that!

  10. Heiko Gerhauser Says:

    Hi Bart,

    that’s not how I’d summarise it, what I wanted to stress was that the world’s willingness to do something about climate change is a pretty slow moving variable and it’s important to also look at ways to improve the response that go beyond debating the need for more or respectively less effort, for example to consider in detail how technologies can be helped across the Valley of Death, when a politically acceptable carbon price alone may not be sufficient.

    I also think that a carbon price that is politically acceptable is not a particularly effective means of dealing with lock-in, because it favours low capital cost means of attacking the problem of emission reduction. For example, instead of buying a new wind based power plant, a big utility chooses to burn more natural gas rather than coal.

    While that sort of tinkering at the marges does reduce near term emissions, depending on the relative prices of coal and natural gas even quite cheaply, it does little about infrastructure lock-in. It may even make it worse, because instead of investing in new renewable energy infrastructure, the result of the carbon price may purely be more infrastructure being built for producing and transporting natural gas.

  11. Roddy Campbell Says:

    Pielke Jr has just put up a UN ‘chronic hunger’ post, which has relevance to the costs of implementation being discussed here, and also relevance to whether the largest future emitters will choose to mitigate and be poorer than if they don’t.

  12. Bart Says:


    Indeed, emerging economies will very likely dominate future CO2 emissions, as these maps of projected GDP growth show (CO2 emissions scale quite strongly to GDP, though hopefully we manage to decrease this scaling factor over time).


    Thanks for clarifying. I think we agree on the importance of paying attention to the whole sequence of technology transfer in stimulating innovative technologies.

  13. Jeff Id Says:

    Here is a quick analysis of wind farms based on their own numbers.

  14. Heiko Gerhauser Says:

    Hi Bart,

    yes, I was not very clear there. Adelady made a very good point above about innovation happening when people actually do things. That’s I think also what the Breakthrough Institute argues.

    Let’s take a specific example, PV. On the one hand, there are arguments for zero funding of any kind:
    Governments are bad at picking winners
    Lots of money gets thrown at very expensive existing technology
    Breakthroughs will happen in other areas, which will then enable cheap PV

    Then there are arguments for just funding lab research, quite similar to the above.

    And finally, there are arguments for feed-in tariffs and the like to actually create an industry, based on arguments about:
    The potential of solar power
    The certainty that a mere switch from coal to natural gas won’t do long term
    The need to create a market
    The need to train people
    The benefits provided by technology clusters
    The likelihood of progress happening, when people are actually working on a technology area

    I am now in favour of feed-in tariffs, and see that the PV industry is going to die a quick death, if the only support it gets is a politically acceptable carbon price.

    On the other hand, I accept that indeed government can waste a lot of money trying to pick winners.

    What I’d plead for is to look at this carefully on a case by case basis, and not just to throw in the towel on targeted support with the argument that with a carbon price all will be good and the market will adequately support the development of key industries.

  15. Heiko Gerhauser Says:

    Let me just say one more thing about fairy dust:

    Michael Tobis approaches this as if it was only about unpredictable breakthroughs, but I think a reasonable case can be made that we are likely to need solar power in the future and that a lot of time is merely needed for the roll-out, for things like training people and working out ways to build PV factories or coatings to keep the PV clean and so forth.

    That is lots of incremental, and at least somewhat predictable progress.

    And what is gained here is a speed-up in a necessary development path.

  16. Jacob Says:

    “that implementation is not cheap…”
    yeah, implementation is not cheap. But that’s not the worst part of it. The worst part is that there are no known “green” technologies that are capable of supplying a significant part of our energy needs. So, the “not cheap” is a mighty understatement of the problem.
    Implementation of wind or solar power, using existing (or forseable) technology will never provide a significant part of our energy. It is physically impossible. There is no energy “solution” there – just playing arround at the margins.
    In short: there is no such thing as effective “implementation”.
    I am amazed at how people delude themselves and buy into this wishful thinking.

  17. Jeff Id Says:


    What about nuclear?

  18. Bart Says:


    Very good points, and I agree with the need to support emerging sustainable technologies, including with market introduction, upscaling etc.

  19. harry Says:


    please, PV is a very bad source of electricity. It is horribly expensive to install, yields are bad for 22/24, 300/365.

    It does not work, except when huge feed-back tariffs are available. I have one, and I am really very much disappointed with its performance. I am currently investigating taking the static array apart, and having a solar following system, or fresnel lenses in front of them, or a combined PV/solar water heater.

    PV alone is a loser. One panel burnt due to leaves on top of it, not covered by the lifetime replacement guarantee. (The outline of the leaf was visible on the burnt surface of the PV :(()

  20. harry Says:


    As for me, I would go for massive nuclear. Wind and PV are bunk, they are never ever going to be able to supply 24/24/7/7/365/365. You need at least 100% of the largest wind or PV farm as back up running all the time at idle loads in order to be able to compensate for the fluctuations. So one installs the double of the power, but uses half, but pays for the whole lot.

    Sounds silly, doesn’t it?

  21. Jeff Id Says:


    Wind and biofuel are absolute losers with no future whatsoever. Before today I would have accepted wind but the numbers don’t add up. Not much uncertainty there.

    I believe PV will work someday – maybe 20 or 30 years – but today it’s absolutely insane to implement it, costs are astronomical and we have no storage.

    I’ve talked an expert into a geothermal post because I still like that but besides nuclear, fossil, and hydroelectric there simply isn’t anything that seems to work.

    Implementing stupid in my business experience is typically a bad idea. All the talk of cost savings and improving investment in ‘renewables’ is just silly talk by people who haven’t paid attention to the numbers. We must run our power generation as a business first or the sacrifices by the poor will be great.

    The solutions are where I’m surprised there isn’t more support from the climate science community. If you only have one or two possible options, it makes no sense to talk about others. Calculations are very simple in this field, any scientist should be able to clear up the gray area with a little effort. But that’s not what we get, we get demands for ‘all of the above’ and ‘multi-faceted’ solutions. If you were intending to limit success, it’s a great answer, if you are actually trying to reduce CO2 emission, it’s dumb.

    Nonsense energy makes as much sense as putting a generator on the back tire of your car to power the front.

  22. Eddie Mertin Says:

    I am deeply ashamed of my country. Many states have passed barbaric laws against idling of transportation vehicles, period, no discussion. The people who passed these laws wish you to roast to your death in a place like Needles, California in the 120F summer and freeze to your death in, say a sub-zero Maine winter.

    No laws are proposed or passed requiring the manufacturer’s installation of insulation in the floors, roofs and walls of these vehicles. Nor something like this to protect people from the elements.

    Its all about emissions and you dirtbags can just die, we don’t care!

    Shame on you!

  23. Bart Says:

    All: From now on, first time commenters need their comment to be approved by me before they can post without moderation.

    (I’m not sure if this means from now on, or whether wordpress takes into account previous comments.)

  24. Jeff Id Says:


    Was there a problem without moderation?

    You may find you can just ask people or snip a rare comment rather than moderate, it gives room for real discussion. With moderation set, you won’t be able to get discussion between commentors. It’s far more effective, you spend less time and can quickly generate a repectful tone as CA does. Occasionally a moron will go to far, but [snip] and it’s all gone.

  25. Jeff Id Says:

    I see, its just first time comment. The rest will go through. Not bad.

  26. Länkat & kommenterat 2010-09-16 — Says:

    […] Innovation, implementation and efficiency […]

  27. Bart Says:


    I value the possibility of discussion in real time, so indeed no moderation serves that purpose better. First time comment moderation though can hopefully prevent drive by shootings that would otherwise derail the discussion. Perhaps it’s a good in-between; I’ll see how I like it.

  28. Jeff Id Says:

    I like it.

    One thing I do when it gets out of hand is throw up a post with some math and graphs. Trolls fear numbers.

  29. joe Says:

    Isn’t decentralization of power generation also a key component here? If we move to small-scale but thousands/millions sites of solar, wind, geothermal, and hydroelectric generation does this overcome some of the energy storage and transport problems that Jeff refers to?

  30. Shub Niggurath Says:

    A little late comment but still:
    Jeff ID – I think the IPCC took your approach to the whole climate change issue as such. Throw in numbers and graphs to keep the ‘trolls away’.

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