The latest edition of The New York Times Magazine features 32 technology “innovations that will change your tomorrow”. The listed technologies range from the quirky – #14 is something called “the shutup gun” – to the eminently useful, such as #20 (and my favorite), synthetic alcohol that would eliminate hangovers. As Sarah Laskow points out at Grist, however, most of the innovations on the list will simply “give people fabulous new ways to consume more: New coffee! More screens! Underwear that monitors how lazy you are!”
Laskow goes on to highlight several of the innovations that would contribute to environmental sustainability, but her point about the list mainly catering to a culture of consumption is well made. Surely potential innovations in clean energy would be of far greater benefit to the world, in light of the need to rapidly decarbonize the economy, and thus far more worth listing…which is why ITIF presents the following list of interesting clean technologies under development that were previously highlighted on the blog:
- The Envia lithium-ion battery and IBM’s lithium-air battery, which could greatly decrease the cost of electric vehicles.
- Biofuels for Navy use and the Army’s Green Warrior Convoy project, which could make the services more energy efficient and less dependent on unstable foreign sources of fuel.
- Floating wind turbines, which have several significant advantages over conventional land-based and even offshore wind turbines.
- Government-backed breakthroughs in power electronics, which could have all manner of benefits to the energy economy.
In The New York Times Magazine’s defense, their piece does describe the rocky path to innovation well:
It’s bad financial decisions and blueprints for machines that weren’t built until decades later. It’s the important leaps forward that synthesize lots of ideas, and it’s the belly-up failures that teach us what not to do.
When we ignore how innovation actually works, we make it hard to see what’s happening right in front of us today. If you don’t know that the incandescent light was a failure before it was a success, it’s easy to write off some modern energy innovations — like solar panels — because they haven’t hit the big time fast enough.
The points about innovation in general apply well to clean energy in particular. Patience is absolutely a virtue. As Bill Gates has cautioned, “There are natural things about the energy sector that are going to make it, because of the gigantic capital involved and the nature of technologies, a lot slower than the IT revolution. The IT revolution is the exception that’s kind of warped people’s minds about how quickly things can work.” Furthermore, as Matt Stepp has previously blogged, the public and private sectors alike shouldn’t be scared off by apparent failures in the clean energy space. The promising clean energy innovations listed above haven’t reached commercialization yet and there may be setbacks before then, but that doesn’t make clean energy innovation any less worthy of support.
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