from Energy, Security, and Climate and Energy Security and Climate Change Program

Energy Innovation Isn’t Just About Technology

February 2, 2011

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For many people, innovation is pretty much synonymous with technology. But when it comes to dealing with our energy and climate problems, we’re going to need innovation on other fronts. In particular, we’re going to need new business models that fit with clean energy. One key part of that that I keep coming back to in my thinking is finance.

It’s not fashionable these days to call for financial innovation, which people associate with ill-advised inventions like CDO-squareds. But as Bob Litan showed in a paper about a year ago, there’s actually been a lot of economically beneficial financial innovation in the past few decades. Where might creative finance help with our energy problems in the coming decades? Here are a couple ideas that help me think through the limits.

On the conventional end, energy efficiency finance stands out. The typical consumer appears to demand a very short payback period for investments in energy efficient equipment. This should, in theory, be the perfect opportunity for financial innovation: a third party should be able to absorb the up-front cost of the efficienct equipment, take a cut of the fuel savings, and make a profit, all while leaving enough for the original consumer to make some money too. (The same sort of innovation will generally make sense for renewable energy, which shares the same high up front cost vs fuel savings later feature.) Why hasn’t there been a proliferation of innovation in this area? I don’t know, but the companies that figure out how to do it at scale should profit handsomely while helping fix our energy problems. (Bonus unexpected source of progress: Success here will also require legal innovation.)

On the more speculative extreme, I wonder if we could see new variations on (or even substitutes for) venture capital emerge. Venture capital has become pretty much synonymous with financial support for cutting-edge technology. But the established VC model – relatively small scale of capital, 3-5 year investments – is a pretty poor match for much of the energy field, in which early stage projects will take much longer to mature and will cost a lot more money than the VC norm. The sharper analysts who understand this tend to conclude that government will need to step in to make sure technological progress happens. Perhaps. But the history of government support for innovation aimed  at commercial application isn’t all that encouraging. We’d be a lot better off if someone invented a financial structure that allowed investors to collectively take longer-term, higher-capital, risks. Perhaps that’s a pipe dream, but it’s worth recalling that venture capital basically didn’t exist seventy years ago, and didn’t really take off until the 1980s. When it did, it was partly in response to changes in federal rules that had previously deterred pension fund investments in VC. (It also followed an ill-fated earlier attempt by the U.S. government to spark VC.) Might we see new models for high-risk technology finance emerge? I don’t know, but I wouldn’t count it out.

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