Posts Tagged ‘R&D’

Innovation, implementation and efficiency

September 14, 2010

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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