Energy Technology Breakthroughs in Context

By Miles Brundage,

Should we expect technological innovations to cure society’s problems? The media are filled with reports of cutting-edge breakthroughs in health, energy, computing, and other technology areas, often accompanied by the explicit or implicit hope that such breakthroughs will fundamentally improve the human condition. While there’s no simple way to sift through techno-scientific hype, a close look at the societal challenge of climate change suggests that we shouldn’t put much faith in technological miracles to “solve” that particular problem.

I started thinking about this topic when I read an article in The New York Times entitled “In Search of Energy Miracles,” which posed the question: “How much faith should we, as a society, put in the idea of a big technological fix to save the world from climate change?” In my opinion, one of the reasons the answer is “not much,” is that technology innovation’s impacts run both ways with climate change. After all, it is innovations in energy technology, such as more efficient means of producing oil, coal, and gas, that got us into this mess in the first place. To illustrate, just one day after the “Energy Miracles” article was published, The Times ran another article heralding an “energy coup for Japan” in the form of offshore methane hydrate deposits, or “flammable ice.” Continuous improvement in offshore drilling and other related technologies in recent years have made it more and more feasible to tap the enormous resources of methane hydrates, which, like tar sands, contain more than enough carbon to cause catastrophic climate change if we burn a significant fraction of them. Oil and gas companies are pouring billions of dollars into research and development each year, making them a rapidly moving target for clean energy researchers seeking to out-innovate the incumbent energy giants.

Another reason to be skeptical is that fossil fuels are benefitting from an economic and political system that is largely stacked in their favor. While there is much discussion in the media these days about the pros and cons of various clean energy subsidies, environmental economists point out that there are vastly greater hidden subsidies for fossil fuels, in the form of unpriced externalities. “Externalities” are the effects that a purchase of a good has on third parties that aren’t factored into the price of that good, but may be quite significant. For example, the burning of fossil fuels contributes to various illnesses through worsened air pollution and is the key contributor to human-caused climate change, but these costs are paid for by society at large rather than individuals or companies. This is the reasoning behind carbon taxes or cap-and-trade systems, which are aimed at putting a price on these negative impacts on society and thereby harnessing the profit motive to speed up clean energy deployment. The “Energy Miracles” article rightly points out that most energy policy observers think a mix of research and development investments and putting a price on externalities is required to combat climate change.

Even if Congress were to follow European countries and, now, China in setting out plans for a carbon tax or similar policy to drive faster clean energy adoption, it is not obvious that this would be enough to “solve” the climate problem and this will create a whole new set of complex ethical and policy issues to navigate.  Some studies suggest that the climate change “in the pipeline” from greenhouse gases already in the atmosphere mean that policies today can’t have much of an effect until the second half of this century. On top of that, optimistic projections generally assume a World War II-like build-up of infrastructure, which doesn’t seem forthcoming. Much of the difficulty of this transition stems from the fact that energy systems are not merely technological systems, but socio-technological systems – which rely on vast networks of people and machines interacting in complex ways around the world. Since economic growth in developing countries will continue to increase energy demand, scaling up clean energy in a way that would make a dent in climate change would likely amount to replacing the world’s largest socio-technological system with an even bigger one, with myriad impacts on lifestyles, incomes, geopolitics, etc. How to do this in an economically efficient and socially responsible manner remains an open question.

A final point to consider in thinking about the role of energy technology “miracles” is that we need miracles on other fronts, as well, including finance and policy. CSPO’s Clark Miller notes that a conference on energy innovation should ideally include 1/3 technology innovators, 1/3 social innovators, and 1/3 policy innovators. Fortunately, there are some reasons to be optimistic, including the literally hundreds of novel technology concepts on display at the Department of Energy’s recent ARPA-E Energy Innovation Summit. Meanwhile, around the country, all sorts of new financing models being tested out to scale up solar energy, for example. Undoubtedly, technology will have to play a critical role in enabling a sustainable energy future, but we will need more than technologists to imagine and bring about that future. This is true even if one takes a purely economic perspective – if solar panels were free, for example, there would still be substantial costs involved in delivering, installing, and maintaining them, and it is not clear how far technology can take us in enabling clean energy to compete with the existing infrastructure, for which the capital costs are mostly paid off already. So, returning to the question posed by the New York Times article about climate change, we shouldn’t put much faith in a technological silver bullet to save us. This is no reason to despair – we have much more than just technology in our tool-box for addressing social problems. The limits of breakthrough technologies make the climate and energy challenges a lot more difficult, but also a lot more interesting and exciting, as we can build a future that is not just more sustainable but also more just and prosperous.

Miles Brundage served as Special Assistant to the Director of the Advanced Research Projects Agency – Energy (ARPA-E) at the U.S. Department of Energy from 2010 to 2012. He is currently a Research Assistant at the Consortium for Science, Policy, and Outcomes (CSPO) and is a member of the NSF-funded Solar Utilization Network.