Accelerating the pace of innovation

25 04 2011

The Fukushima nuclear crisis in Japan has imparted some urgency to the debate of how to produce carbon-free energy that will maintain the vitality of society avoiding the increase of atmospheric carbon concentration to catastrophic levels. Renewable energies such as wind and solar electricity production have developed rapidly in the last decade, prompted largely by public subsidies, but the cost of the environmentaly clean electricity is still far too high to supplant  energy generation from the reservoir of fossil fuels. Nuclear energy (free of carbon emissions), that was advocated by many as a helpful solution, is being strongly discredited by the recent events that show the very high riscs of  low probability events that damage severely the population.

The question is, which is the way to go for an extaordinary acceleration of improvement of technologies such as new solar cells that can convert sunlight to electricity at a low cost and during a long time. Research in solar cells based on organic components such as Grätzel’s dye solar cell and the all-plastic, organic solar cells, has become very popular, and more and more groups of chemists, physicists and multidisplinary teams join to produce results in this area. Especially China, Korea, and other countries in East of Asia show an extraordinary vigor in scientific production. However, at some point these efforts must turn into market products, and this cannot be done by academic research alone.

In fact the developments of these discoveries towards real application may prevent to an important extent further progress, as the intelectual property (IP) is evidently very highly valued by the companies involved. A successful molecule may be worth an astronomic quantity of money if it produces a technological winner. Once IP becomes a central issue, free transmission of knowledge and know-how will be severely cut between science and technology.

Marty Hoffert, in a recent article in Nature, argues that a revolution in clean energy cannot happen by the forces of market alone. In fact some major developments that shaped our technological society, like the microchip, the Internet, the nuclear reactor, did not begin as products developed in company, but rather as a major program supported by public agencies often with large available funds and a well focussed goal (mainly the military).

Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus, leaders of the Breakthrough Institute (a think tank based in Oakland, California) pointed out some months ago in an article that nations should use competitive deployment to purchase advanced energy technologies, benchmark the winners, and allow intellectual property to spill-over between firms and nations. The idea is to divert the effort from funding old techlogies into the development of major innovations that will change the energy system and effectively combat the advance of climate change. Governments should solicit bids for a certain major advancement, and rapidly free the IP and disseminate the technology into the business world.

The need for rapid innovation in renewable energy technologies and their rapid implantation across the world by the market forces is certainly an outstanding challenge. A number of important discoveries is needed, fast. It seems a good idea to set major programs with adequate funding that will concentrate the efforts in a suitable scale of research. It is also very important as stated by Shellenberger and Nordhaus to warrant the swift deployment by treating clean-tech intellectual property as as a public good.