Do we need “disruptive clean-energy technologies that achieve non-incremental breakthroughs” to solve the global warming problem, as S&N (and Lomborg, and Bush, and his advisors) argue? Let’s hope not — for the sake of the next 50 generations.

Why? Two reasons:

  1. Such breakthroughs hardly ever happen.
  2. Even when they do happen, they rarely have a transformative impact on energy markets, even over a span of decades.

Consider that solar photovoltaic cells — a major breakthrough — were invented over 50 years ago, and still comprise only about 0.1 percent of U.S. electricity (and that amount is thanks to major subsidies).

Consider that hydrogen fuel cells — a favorite technology of the breakthrough bunch — were invented more than 165 years ago, and deliver very little electricity (and what little they do deliver comes only because of major subsidies) and no consumer transportation.

Consider fusion — ’nuff said!

I know this seems counterintuitive, when we see such remarkable technology advances almost every month in telecommunications and computers. But it’s true — and I will explain why in this post.

Let me start with a question I often pose to audiences of energy and environmental experts: What technology breakthroughs in the past three decades have transformed how we use energy today? The answer may surprise you.

There really haven’t been any — certainly none have ever been suggested to me after years of giving talks.

We use energy today roughly the same way we did 30 years ago. Our cars still run on internal combustion engines that burn gasoline. Alternatives to gasoline like corn ethanol make up but a few percent of all U.S. transportation fuels — and corn ethanol is hardly a breakthrough fuel and required a massive subsidy and a mandate to achieve its recent growth. (In every country that has succeeded with alternative fuels — and there aren’t many — mandates have played a central role.)

Fuel economy from the mid-1970s did double by the mid-1980s, as required by government regulations, but in the last quarter-century the average fuel economy of American consumer vehicles has remained flat or even declined slightly.

The single biggest source of electricity generation, by far, is still coal power, just as it was 30 years ago. The vast majority of all power plants still generate heat to make steam turn a turbine — and the average efficiency of our electric power plants is about what it was 30 years ago. We did see the introduction of the highly efficient natural-gas combined-cycle turbine, but that was not based on a breakthrough from the past three decades, and constrained natural gas supply in North America severely limited growth in gas-fired power — so the share of U.S. electricity generated by natural gas has grown only modestly in 30 years. Nuclear power was about 10 percent of total U.S. electric power 30 years ago and now it’s about 20 percent. But the nuclear energy “breakthrough” occurred long before the 1970s, and we haven’t built a new nuclear power plant in two decades, in large part because that power has been so expensive (and the growth in nuclear power required massive government regulatory support).

We do have a lot more home appliances, but they haven’t fundamentally changed how we use energy. Interestingly, home energy use per square foot has not changed that much even with all those new electronic gadgets, for two reasons. First, my old office at DOE developed major advances in key consumer technologies, including refrigeration and lighting. Second, efficiency standards for appliances have made use of those efficient technologies widespread. From the mid-1970s until today, refrigerator electricity used has dropped a whopping three quarters. Perhaps that should be called a breakthrough, especially because some of the savings came from remarkable improvements in the guts of the refrigerator from Oak Ridge National Laboratory. But we still use refrigerators pretty much as we did, so in that sense, these breakthroughs didn’t change how we use energy — and they still required mandates to deeply penetrate the market.

One of the most widely publicized energy technology breakthroughs occurred in 1986 when researchers in IBM’s Research Laboratories in Zurich, Switzerland, discovered a material that conducted electricity with no resistance at considerably higher temperatures than previous conductors. Over the next few years, a series of breakthroughs in these high-temperature superconductors were announced. This technology generated great excitement because it held the promise of super-efficient electric motors and loss-free long-distance electric transmission lines. My old office at DOE poured millions into applying the breakthrough. Yet all these years later, you may ask, where are all the high-temperature superconductors? They have had very little impact on either electric motors or power transmission.

Typically it has taken 25 years after commercial introduction for a primary energy form to obtain a 1 percent share of the global market.

So noted Royal Dutch/Shell, one of the world’s largest oil companies, in its 2001 scenarios for how energy use is likely to evolve over the next five decades. Note that this tiny toe-hold comes 25 years after commercial introduction. The first transition from scientific breakthrough to commercial introduction may itself take decades. We still haven’t seen commercial introduction of a hydrogen fuel cell car.

Shell’s statement is basically true, although I believe we could in some instances speed things up — but only with the kind of aggressive technology deployment programs and government standards that conservatives do not like and S&N think are not central. Given that we must dramatically reverse greenhouse-gas-emissions trends over the next 25 years, we must focus on technologies that are either commercial or nearly commercial today. That’s why S&N’s whole analysis is wrong. They argue:

  1. Setting a price on carbon dioxide … cannot reduce greenhouse gas emissions anywhere close to what is needed …
  2. Technically, there simply do not yet exist the low-cost, low-carbon technologies that could be quickly brought to scale to replace carbon intensive energy sources …
  3. Dramatic and rapid technological breakthroughs will not be primarily driven by the private sector.
  4. … to deal with global warming, we will need an almost entirely new energy infrastructure.

My response to this:

  1. Straw man. We need a price for carbon and a bunch of intelligent regulations to achieve the necessary emissions reductions. No one I know is arguing only for a carbon price.
  2. Very wrong. This is the Bush administration’s central argument. If the fate of the planet rests on nonexistent technology, we are in big, big trouble. The thing about nonexistent technology, like fusion, is that it tends to stay nonexistent — or, like hydrogen cars, just has too many technical and infrastructure barriers to overcome (a point I will return to in the next part), even after you spend hundreds of millions of dollars pursuing it. Fortunately, the technology to combat warming does exist, as I argue in my book at length (see also the “stabilization wedges” work from Princeton).
  3. Quite irrelevant. Again, we can’t rely on historically super-rare “dramatic and rapid technological breakthroughs” and don’t need to. So this whole argument is moot. We need to drive capital into the private sector to deploy existing technology far more than we need to ramp up public sector money to develop breakthroughs.
  4. Precisely why we need regulations! We will need a new energy infrastructure — primarily for vehicles and electricity. Such infrastructure changes historically have required government action, because the infrastructure barriers to entry in those two sectors are so enormous that new technology (and even smart old technology, like combined heat and power) can’t compete effectively. This is the central reason that technology breakthroughs don’t transform the energy market the way they seem to in other sectors, a point I will elaborate on in Part III.

The bottom line, though, is that if you want to transform the infrastructure for vehicles and electricity, if you want to solve the global warming problem, you need intelligent government regulations infinitely more than you need a massive effort to find breakthough technologies. Indeed, I can certainly solve the the global warming problem with smart regulations and no publically funded breakthroughs; but I almost certainly cannot solve global warming with publically funded breakthroughs and no smart regulations to get them into the marketplace quickly and at the necessary scale.

This post was created for, a project of the Center for American Progress Action Fund.