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© Lewis J. Perelman, 2012

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Executive Summary

Energy Innovation: Fixing the Technical Fix

Energy policy is what systems scientists literally call a “mess”: a tangle of economic, environmental, social, and technical problems stirred by competing and often conflicting political agendas.

Breakthrough Institute founders Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger have promoted the case for a fundamental shift in energy policy strategies—away from schemes to make dirty energy more expensive and instead a strategy to make clean energy cheap.  What they call an “emerging consensus” of analysts and centers agrees that a greatly increased investment in breakthrough technology innovation is essential to resolving the mess of energy-related economic, climate, and other problems.  

However, a number of complex issues make it more difficult to devise how the grand technology initiative is to be carried out, by whom, and with what results:

Moreover, in the current economic environment, financially distressed governments simply may not be able to provide the scale of investment called for.  However, a Plan B strategy for “innovation on a budget” is possible.  

Plan B begins with the recognition that a “big” energy innovation program does not necessarily need to be big in cost to the public treasury to be big in the scope of its reach, engagement, diversity, and impacts.  

Rather, a number of limited-budget, efficient measures to promote significant innovation are available:

Several emerging-consensus collaborators agree that the organization of a breakthrough energy innovation program requires greater decentralization, regionalization, diversification, and broader overall participation than traditional centralized government technology projects.  The “mesh” architecture of modern information technology points the way.

An indicator of what a socially and digitally networked energy-innovation mesh may accomplish is the open-source IT movement that begat products such as the Linux operating system, the World Wide Web, Wikipedia, and such.  In fact leading-edge corporations now are using social networks to open up their innovation efforts to broad participation, demonstrating the potential of “Open Innovation.”

The energy innovation programs the emerging consensus is calling for should defocus activity to many diverse nodes at the edge, and nurture bottom-up innovation. And they should engage collaboration internationally, not just domestically.

Such a network-oriented program design can achieve broad and diverse participation more effectively and at lower cost than the traditional form of centralized, top-down, hub-and-spoke national programs.  The open innovation mesh is the key to untangle the energy policy mess.