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

Overselling Energy Innovation

February 22, 2013

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Technology and Innovation


Innovation will be critical to confronting the world’s energy problems, but the promise of energy innovation has too often been oversold. In an essay in the new issue of Issues in Science and Technology I explain why.

In the wake of the Copenhagen debacle and the collapse of cap-and-trade, Americans have been searching for new ways to tackle climate change. One of the most popular ideas to emerge has been a call to focus on energy innovation. Proponents of this approach argue that focusing on making clean energy cheaper rather than on making dirty energy more expensive would transform the domestic and international politics (and perhaps economics) of climate and energy policy.

I argue in my essay that a focus on innovation will need to involve serious policy in order to be effective, but that innovation policy itself entails a host of tricky political and economic challenges. At the domestic level, there is considerable opposition to the regulatory, spending, and tax tools that it would need to use; there are also serious hurdles to implementing innovation policy properly. At the international level a focus on innovation may ultimately replace a fight over dividing the burden of emissions reductions with a new fight over dividing the spoils of clean energy markets. And, after all that, innovation alone is exceedingly unlikely to solve our climate and energy problems.

The article isn’t an argument against promoting energy innovation through markets and policy. It is, however, a caution against expecting too much and hence neglecting other essential elements of an effective approach. It also offers up some ideas for how to tailor innovation strategy so that it has a greater prospect of sustained acceptance and effectiveness.

I encourage you to buy a copy of Issues – there are other interesting articles in the current edition. You can also download a pre-print version of the article here.