Why energy innovation is like mowing an Earth-sized, overgrown lawn

Developing competitive, high-performance, clean-energy technologies is not unlike a group of people mowing an Earth-sized, overgrown lawn, Stepp writes. It is a problem we’re trying to collectively address and we’re implementing a coordinated set of policy solutions to do so.

Mike Blake/Reuters/File
A prototype sun tracking solar panel collects energy in San Diego. An efficient, well-oiled energy innovation ecosystem includes and requires federal support across numerous development and technology pathways, Stepp writes, which also support each other.

I recently asked a few colleagues over lunch the kind of wonky question that would only be allowed within the borders of the District of Columbia: Aside from more government investment – which is desperately needed – what are the big issues with America’s energy innovation ecosystem?

There’s no simple answer to that question, so we talked about a range of important ideas such as supporting advanced manufacturing, creating technology incubators, and reforming the DOE National Labs system. But what struck me was my colleagues’ insistence that what’s also needed is educating policymakers and advocates on how the energy innovation ecosystem fits together.

During the last five years, the U.S. federal government has added new institutions to spur innovation at different points along the technology development cycle, such as ARPA-E, the Energy Innovation Hubs, and Energy Frontier Research Centers. Analysts like myself argue more is needed. In response, policymakers fear duplication, extra bureaucracy, and inefficiencies often because these requests lack a clear case for how the policy pieces complement rather than repeat or compete with each other. This misunderstanding fuels – along with many other factors – a lack of support for strengthening the ecosystem as a whole. 

Describing how these pieces work together can quickly get nuanced, but a metaphor came out of the discussion that merits repeating: think of energy innovation policy as a group of people mowing an Earth-sized, overgrown lawn. In this case, mowing the lawn is the stand-in for developing competitive, high-performance clean energy technologies. It is the problem we’re trying to collectively address and we’re implementing a coordinated set of policy solutions to do so. (Read More: DOE Proposes Expanding High Impact Energy Innovation Incubator Program)

Programs like the Energy Frontier Research Centers (EFRCs) within the DOE Office of Science are trying to solve fundamental science problems. For mowing the lawn, it is the equivalent of researching why the grass is growing in the first place. If we completely understand why the grass is growing, we can potentially develop better, more efficient solutions for mowing the entire lawn in the future. The EFRCs and Office of Science are studying underlying science problems in chemistry, material science, and physics that could potentially lead to more energy dense batteries, more efficient solar panels, and new low-carbon technologies we haven’t thought of today. We know that understanding the basic science is crucial because the possible outcomes of the work are unknown and unlimited.

The Energy Innovation Hubs are more goal-oriented. The Hubs are collaboratively working with academics, industry, and the National Labs to reach particular technological milestones (not particular technology). This is the equivalent of knowing what type of futuristic lawnmower the world needs to cut the grass, and exploring a multitude of ways to develop it. The Hubs have set audacious technology goals and are conducting crosscutting research that bridges breakthrough science with engineering and industrial application. For example, the Joint Center for Energy Storage Research is taking the last decade’s worth of breakthrough material and chemistry science to develop new battery storage pathways that are five times more energy dense than today’s best lithium-ion battery at one-fifth the cost in five years. We know that developing batteries with such characteristics would be game-changers for emerging industries like electric vehicles. In this case, we understand the technological characteristics necessary to revolutionize clean energy; we just need to figure out how to apply breakthrough science to get there.

ARPA-E is investing in transformative energy technologies by providing small grants on three-year terms to overcome research barriers to piloting potential breakthrough energy technologies. ARPA-E targets investments outside of traditional research pathways. This is the equivalent of going beyond asking how to develop a better lawnmower, to wondering how to develop grass that naturally grows half the length or half as fast so that we don’t need to cut it as much or at all. For clean energy, this has included investing in “electrofuels” – biofuels created by microorganisms and not plant material, like that used to make traditional biofuels. Electrofuels could be ten times more energy efficient than current biofuels at less cost because they do not rely on fertilizers or plant processing, and do not require large areas to grow crops. In this case, we are thinking outside the box and are making small, strategic investments to advance entirely unique and new breakthrough energy technologies. (Read More: Obama’s Budget Boosts Support for Energy Innovation)

These programs also work synergistically with the rest of the U.S. innovation ecosystem. To give one example, the DOE Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE) invests in, among many other areas, research to develop next-generation lithium-ion batteries rather than next-generation batteries, in general. To extend the lawnmower metaphor one more time, this situation is equivalent to developing a better ride-on lawnmower – we know it works, but in order for it to mow more land faster and at cheaper costs, it requires new blade research, innovative lightweight materials, and advanced fuels.

EERE works on a cohesive set of research issues that could impact energy technology development and deployment in the coming years. For instance, basic science breakthroughs made at EFRCs inform potential research solutions at EERE and vice versa. Energy Innovation Hubs are leveraging research conducted through EERE to reach its technological milestones – in fact, EERE hosts a Hub on Critical Materials.

And for EERE and ARPA-E, the synergy is advancing. The Administration and the DOE have proposed creatingtechnology incubators to invest in “off-pathway” energy technologies not currently pursued inside EERE. For example, if an ARPA-E grantee succeeds in piloting its breakthrough technology, but requires additional research to demonstrate the technology at scale (e.g. take a successfully new battery chemistry and demonstrate it in a working car), an EERE incubator could serve as a potential mechanism for moving it forward. This would be in addition ARPA-E projects potentially gaining follow-on support from large strategic companies, venture capital, and other private investors. Incubators would ensure that breakthrough ideas piloted by ARPA-E investments (or developed by academia or the Labs), could gain research support through the early demonstration stage.

Metaphors like these are a reminder that energy innovation is a non-linear process with many points of contact, public-private partnerships, development goals, and investment pathways. It all works together and there is no single point of investment that spurs breakthrough technologies, energy or otherwise. In fact, an efficient, well-oiled energy innovation ecosystem includes and requires federal support across numerous development and technology pathways, which also support each other. While the U.S. energy innovation ecosystem is grosslyunderfunded, special policy care is also necessary to ensure that its structure is well connected.

Source: Making Sense of Government Energy Innovation Policy through Lawn Care

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