The Debate of the Decade Revisited — Avoiding the Technology Trap

The NYT‘s Andy Revkin replied to my earlier post (“The religion of technology pessimism gains a disciple at the New York Times“) with “What Will Drive the Energy ‘Innovation Revolution’?

I’m glad he replied since I view this issue as the debate of the decade as I wrote back in April. See “Welcome N.Y. Times readers to the debate of the decade: Technology development vs. deployment” — yes, I know, the title is d©ja vu all over again. That post really said it all, but here are the key points:
1) I (and others) have been urging for 20 years a dramatic ramp up in R&D funding.

2) We have now run out of time for hoping and praying for breakthrough technologies, which frankly, hardly ever come in the energy business, unlike, say, telecom (see here).

3) Fortunately, we now have all the technology we need now for at least the next three decades — counting the stuff that is going to be commercialized in the next few years.

4) If we don’t aggressively deploy every existing piece of energy efficient and low carbon technologies over the next two decades, all the research in the world won’t stop catastrophe.

5) Many of the people who argue we need to spend huge amounts of money on research do so sincerely, but as we have seen again and again, the notion that “we can’t solve the climate problem without technology breakthroughs” is a premier strategy of the global warming Delayers, like Bush, Luntz, Crichton, Lomborg, and Gingrich (see here).
6) The biggest improvements in cost and performance in the key technologies now come from aggressive deployment, which takes you down the manufacturing learning curve and provides economies of scale. That’s why deployment is so much more important than research now. Also, the private sector including the venture capital community has started outspending the public sector in these areas, which is no surprise, since they have a lot more money. The more the governments of the world gets serious about action, the more that gap will grow.

7) When we get desperate to avert catastrophe — which we obviously aren’t now — we will spend more on research, but 10 to 100 times as much on deployment. Fundamentally whether you look at IEA or McKinsey or the IPCC or the 5-lab study I oversaw back at the office of energy efficiency in the mid-90s, avoiding catastrophic global warming requires shifting about 1% to 2% of all capital investments from inefficient, polluting stuff into clean, efficiency stuff.

Everybody has been begging for more energy R&D since Ronald Reagan slashed Jimmy Carter’s program. I’m delighted that so many people continue to beg for it. Now we just need people to start talking up — and actually doing — deployment, since it is more important, more urgent, and requires lots more money and effort.

Let me end with some points from my original post on this:

Conservative message maker Luntz realized that it could be politically dangerous to oppose any action on global warming, even if efforts to obfuscate the climate science were successful. Luntz lays out a clever solution to this conundrum in his 2002 “Straight Talk” memo on climate change messaging [a must-read for all concerned citizens]:

Technology and innovation are the key in arguments on both sides. Global warming alarmists use American superiority in technology and innovation quite effectively in responding to accusations that international agreements such as the Kyoto accord could cost the United States billions. Rather than condemning corporate America the way most environmentalists have done in the past, they attack us for lacking faith in our collective ability to meet any economic challenges presented by environmental changes we make. This should be our argument. We need to emphasize how voluntary innovation and experimentation are preferable to bureaucratic or international intervention and regulation.

That’s why I call this the technology trap, because the promise of new technology is used to delay action, rather than to foster action, on climate change.

You can see why we must all be very wary of people who say the solution is new technology. Even very well-meaning people like Jeffrey Saches who may not understand how they are playing into the hands of the delayers by saying we “need a fundamentally new set of technologies” to solve the climate problem without destroying the economy. Anyone should be worried when they sound like the president’s Science Advisor, John H. Marburger III, who said in 2006:

It’s important not to get distracted by chasing short-term reductions in greenhouse emissions. The real payoff is in long- term technological breakthroughs.

Or when you sound like then Bush Secretary of Energy Spencer Abraham, who said in 2003

Either dramatic greenhouse gas reductions will come at the expense of economic growth and improved living standards, or breakthrough energy technologies that change the game entirely will allow us to reduce emissions while, at the same time, we maintain economic growth and improve the world’s standards of living.

Now just because the climate destroyer delayers at the Bush administration all push breakthrough technologies as their primary solution to global warming does not mean it is inherently a misguided idea [what am I saying — of course it does]. We don’t lack the technology to avert a climate catastrophe while sustaining global economic development. We merely lack the political will. That is the point of my series:

15 Responses to The Debate of the Decade Revisited — Avoiding the Technology Trap

  1. David Doty says:

    On July 11, Doty Energy opened their WindFuels website, in which we present (particularly to fellow scientists and engineers) the most promising route thus far to renewable, carbon-neutral, transportation fuels at competitive prices.

    We have shown, in scientific and engineering detail, how it will be straightforward to make all the fuels and chemicals needed in the U.S. cost effectively from waste CO2, water, and wind energy — waste free.

    There’s an enormous amount of sound, technical material at several levels on the website. It’s been reviewed and endorsed by a number of distinguished scientists and engineers from all the relevant disciplines – including chemistry, physics, chemical engineering, and the other disciplines.

    WindFuels is not only the best solution to our energy and climate challenges, it is the best way to breath new life into both industry and science in the U.S. – especially the fields of chemistry, chemical engineering, mechanical engineering, and physics.

    We hope you’ll find WindFuels as exciting as we have and work for its support, especially by passing the link on to your colleagues after you have taken a look at this timely solution. We look forward to your comments.

    F. David Doty, Ph.D.
    Doty Energy

  2. John Hollenberg says:

    Joe, there is one small error under point #6:

    “Also, the private sector including the venture capital community has started outspending the private sector in these areas”

    How can the private sector outspend itself? :-)

    [JR: Fixed, thanks!]

  3. Andy Revkin says:

    The problem, of course, is that every facet of this climate-energy challenge appears to be a “Hail Mary” pass, from breakthroughs in the lab to spurring meaningful action in Congress. For some reason, Joe, you seem to feel the best chance of a breakthrough lies in the political end of things. My sense, in tracking both the climate and energy issues for more than 20 years, is that the politics of solution (the Montreal Protocol, for instance) only come about when the technology is there, and affordable.

    A little “Groundhog Day” moment is worthwhile. Below is a section from my 10/1988 cover story in Discover Magazine on the challenge of global warming (the magazine graciously brought the story out of mothballs last month, which required scanning and typing from a paper copy~~).

    Some of this passage may sound familiar. And of course, heaps of experts agree with Joe that the time for hoping and praying is long past, but not in the lab. In every arena, this chorus repeats over and over, now is the time for doing.

    The only way to eliminate the greenhouse problem completely would be to return the world to its pre­industrial state. No one pro­poses that. But researchers agree that there is plenty that can be done to at least slow down the warming. Energy conservation comes first: us­ing less coal, finding more efficient ways to use cleaner- burning fossil fuels, and tak­ing a new look at nonfossil alternatives, everything from solar and geothermal energy to—yes, even some environ­mentalists are admitting it— nuclear power.

    The entire story is online at the link above.

    [JR: The difference between now and then, Andy, is that the zero-carbon technology needed for mass deployment now exists. It no longer needs to be developed. A technology breakthrough “Hail Mary” is exceedingly unlikely as I have repeatedly blocked. We do need a technology deployment “Hail Mary” but that is a matter of political will.]

  4. John Mashey says:

    It is always disconcerting to see two reasonable people arguing. I remain unsure whether you’re really disagreeing, or whether you’re just arguing past each other, since from outside, you seem to agree on lots of things. We certainly know Andy is not Frank Luntz.

    However, a question for Andy (and anyone else): how familiar are you with the innards of real R&D management, R&D portfolio management, etc? If you need more, I’ll be glad to help. I rummaged around, but couldn’t tell frrom what I read.

    Bell Laboratories has generated its share of breakthroughs. I spent 10 years there, fortunately working mostly in management chains and for individual managers who were considered outstanding, including one who was a later Bell labs President.

    And they always said:

    “Never schedule breakthroughs.”

    And if people don’t understand why outstanding R&DF managers at one of the world’s greatest indsutrial R&D labs would say that, I copy (with a few typo fixes) comments I made
    Climate Progress, 4/30/08:

    Joe advocates:

    normal good R&D portfolio management, as practiced by companies and governments capable of long-term thinking, and who understand technology diffusion and inertia of huge installed bases.

    One classification (different people use different labels, and in some places, combine R2+D1, or D1+D2, or R2+D1+D2; I’ve never managed R1, have done/managed the rest :

    Pure Research (R1)
    Applied Research (R2)
    Exploratory Development (D1)
    Advanced Development (D2)
    Development (D3)
    Deployment & scaleup, cost reductions, etc. (D4)

    Joe seems to advocate reasonable policies:

    a) Spending a big chunk of $$ on deployment of what works already, knowing that volume & experience will help costs come down, and of course, in this case, there are plenty of efficiencies around that are zero-cost, although they may require upfront capital.

    b) Meanwhile, spend some money on lots of little Research projects, select ones that have promise and take them further. This is usually called “progressive commitment”, i.e., you normally have lots of little R projects, and fewer, but bigger D projects, and then most of the money gets spent in deployment. VC’s love to fund things that are ready to Deploy, and they’re OK with things that take some Development. They don’t fund R, at least not on purpose.

    Between 1973 and 1983, I worked for Bell labs, an organization whose record for breakthroughs was pretty good, and which employed 25,000 people, mostly R&D, of which real R was only about 7%. Of course, that was very small compared to the 100s of thousands of people involved in manufacturing, deployment, and support.

    The Bell System had more than 1M employees at one point, and really did think in terms of decades, which many businesses do not. The telephone network had some similarities with the power grid. Tiny efficiencies mattered. I recall a guy getting an award for saving a tiny fraction of the amount of gold needed for electrical contacts … but that was $Ms/year savings.]

    But we always said:
    “never schedule breakthoughs”.

    Given the scale (in the old Bell System days), we had to install things that worked, not counting on what our R folks might invent. We knew they’d invent interesting things, but we also knew it might be 20 years before we could really use them, and some things (like bubble memories) worked, but never well enough to win. Some things were deemed interesting, but really niche, when first done … like lasers, or solar cells. I know of two $B projects where they charged into fullscale Development too early, and wasted most of that money.

    I’ll happily listen to people advocating massive R&D for energy, IF:
    1) They explain the starting portfolio, including what stage each of the proposed projects is at, any known barriers, scaleup issues, costs, etc. [Obviously more is known on some project that’s further along.]
    2) They explain the R&D portfolio management strategy and who’s going to run it.
    3) And they do this convincingly.

    This energy stuff is *harder* than what we did at BTL, since
    Laws of Thermodynamics != Moore’s Law.

    Anyway, whenever anyone says “R&D” or Research I try to ask them what they mean by that, because different people mean very, very different things.

  5. dash says:

    Is this true for CSP?

    peak sunlight energy on Earth is 1000 watts per square meter. That means your 4 Gigawatta solar plant must have a collector area of 4,000 square kilometers, minimum (4 billion watts divided by 1000 watts divided by 1 million squre meters per square kilometers, this neglects efficiency, which means the real number is probably 16,000 square kilometers)

  6. Joe says:

    No, Dash, your math is (quite) off. Try again.

  7. john says:


    You say,

    My sense, in tracking both the climate and energy issues for more than 20 years, is that the politics of solution (the Montreal Protocol, for instance) only come about when the technology is there, and affordable …

    Well, after tracking this issue for more than 30 years, I can tell you there are two flaws in your analysis: 1) you assume that cost-effective alternative technologies are not available now, but they are — a review of Mckinsey, IPCC, the wedge analyses (Joe’s or Socolow’s) show that we can make the requisite cuts at little or no cost with technologies available or nearly available today — we do not need a fundamental breaktrough to stabilize at 450 ppm.

    2) Your assumption that cost-effective alternatives for CFCs were available prior to the Montreal protocal is an overstatement. CFCs were ubiquitous in our economy — used for cleaning, refrigeration, fire retardents etc. DuPont had alternatives for some uses (and not commercially tested ones at that) but they did not have viable replacements for other applications.

    In short, they acted because they had to — and as with the catalytic converter – technology floowed policy.

    But the real problem with someone of your influence repeating the “breakthrough technology” meme, is not siumply that it is wrong — it is that others of bad faith use it to paralyze progress that must be — and can be — made now.

    For the record, I believe we do need a breakthrough technology — one aimed at removing CO2 from the atmosphere. I agree with James Hansen that we need to get below 350 ppm some time after 2050 — as a geologist, I have seen evidence in the geologic record demonstrating run-away feedbacks when atmospheric concentrations exceed that value for any length of time. Both th Permain die-off and the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum were triggered by volcanic activity that was comparable to what we are doing today.

    At any rate, it is either misinformed of disingenuous to say we need a breakthrough to get to 450 ppm — we can, and we should start today.

    In the end, fear of advocacy on the part of the MSM, may be the thing that made it impossible to address global warming on time.

  8. Ronald says:

    To compare the need for non and low carbon energy to the Montreal Protocol can be done. That was one way to solve a problem. But in the 1970’s, smog in cities was a problem and that was solved with pollution reducing engine add ons that was required by law. Could it have been solved any other way? The cars cost more and the technology got better over time, but it was mandated by law.

    For the Montreal Protocol to be compared to the low and non carbon energy, the Montreal Protocol could only have been implemented if the replacement HCFC’s were cheaper than the CFC’s that they were replacing before the agreement was to be implemented. HCFC’s were mandated by law to be implemented even if the total system cost more. Some are saying that low and non carbon energy technologies can be implemented only if they cost less than carbon energy, quite a different thing to do.

  9. dash says:

    Joe, I know it’s wrong. But I’m no scientist. I’d like to refute the guy who is trying to peddle this misinformation.

    [JR: Sorry. I misunderstood. If you do the math again, you’ll see he left in an extra factor of 1000.

    “peak sunlight energy on Earth is 1000 watts per square meter. That means your 4 Gigawatta solar plant must have a collector area of 4 square kilometers [NOT 4,000], minimum (4 billion watts divided by 1000 watts divided by 1 million squre meters per square kilometers)” !!! BTW, 4 GW is a HUGE plant.]

  10. Earl Killian says:

    dash, a real-world CSP plant being built in Victorville for SCE by Stirling Energy Systems is supposed to generate 1780 GWh/year on 1800 hectares of land. That is 271 MWh/day/km^2.

  11. Glenn doty says:

    The problem with deployment is that it will NEVER be done without profit potential!

    If you want deployment, you first have to have some kind of mechanism where the industry can make money or the consumer can save money by deploying…

    Right now, outside of wind energy in a few select places, that doesn’t happen.

    That is what is so exciting about WindFuels, they have the potential to be profitable as soon as the plants start being built, and they will remain profitable through any reasonable level of scalability. They can be deployed at the maximum rate possible by industry and both the industry that is deploying and the consumers that purchase the fuel will directly MONETARILY benefit.

    Profit is another word for God in a free market economy… Until you develop a profitable energy solution, it will not be deployed.

    Good thing a profitable carbon-neutral energy solution is being developed

  12. shouldn’t it be “and – and” rather than “either – or”? Both deployment of currently available technology and further R&D (not in the least in order to make existing technologies cheaper) are needed.
    Now I understand your hesitation to promote R&D when you see examples out there that calling for more R&D is used as an alibi for inaction. A similar problem exists in the discussion about adaptation and mitigation: clearly both are needed, but indeed, there are people out there who use adaptation as a alibi to not engage in mitigation. Very wrong, but is the right answer than to claim that adaptation is unimportant?

  13. David B. Benson says:

    Yesterday I looked thorough Dr. Doty’s web site (first comment above). Rather ingeneous and, although ambitious, looks to be part of a solutiion.

    I was rather amazed to see, according to that site, IEA wanting a $270 per tonne price tag on burning fossil carbon. That’s alot! If the leftover CO2 is by through Dr. Doty’s process, I suppose a case can be made for dropping that surcharge to $135 per tonne. And that is enough (U.S., Canada, Europe) to grow biomass, collect and carbonize it to bury the carbonaceous material deep underground; sequestered for centuries to millennia, one tonne of carbon back in the ground. But if these operations were done in the global South, probably about two tonnes of carbon could be removed for this price.

  14. Joe says:

    I’ll get back to the IEA analytical mistakes next week.

  15. David B. Benson says:

    I think I did the metric conversion wrongly. It ought to be $330 per tonne of carbon. That’s lots for biomass based sequestration!

    But alas, Joe seemed to think IEA has done their sums poorly. :-(