Friday, December 07, 2012

Why so little energy R&D?

If there are good reasons to think that a global reduction in greenhouse gas concentrations is highly dependent on the emergence of cheap and massively scalable carbon-neutral forms of energy, then it becomes important to ask why so little progress has been made in developing such new energy sources. Part of the reason for this is simply technical. Nuclear fusion research alone shows how extremely difficult, time-consuming, and expensive real-world energy innovation can be. While there is always some probability of sudden breakthroughs, it is not difficult to see the vast disconnect between the multi-decade nature of basic energy R&D and the political time horizons employed in most democracies. As our scientific knowledge becomes deeper and broader, we are also confronted by increasing levels of complexity which in turn generates an ever greater need for specialization. Unlike in the past, when a single gifted individual could make great breakthroughs, the future of technological evolution seems to depend on extensive collaborative research networks powered by a growing number of creative and highly educated individuals. Fortunately, thanks to rising prosperity and the fact that more and more people receive higher forms of education, the global talent pool from which such individuals can be drawn is also rapidly increasing. This is a point often missed in the traditional literature on sustainability which tends to focus overwhelmingly on the negative aspects of a burgeoning world population. Yet, beyond this technical dimension, the main reason for the lacking commitment to breakthrough innovation is probably the short-term statist frame within which the need for energy R&D is routinely evaluated. This narrow framing has been further reinforced by the global trend towards liberalization of electricity markets which has compelled utilities to concentrate on cost-cutting and their own short-term survival. In addition, the UNFCCC process itself has, somewhat paradoxically, taken focus away from the global proportions of the emissions gap and shifted it towards national carbon budgets. Thus, we should not be surprised to see that the rich countries of the world have focused on deploying fairly mature small-scale energy technologies such as wind power rather than on pursuing uncertain blue-sky research into the kind of breakthrough technologies needed to stabilize global atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases. While some would of course point to the billions of dollar that have been allocated to projects such as ITER, it should be obvious that even such sums are woefully inadequate given the possibly catastrophic risks associated with a destabilization of the climate system.



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