Progress rarely glows blue: EEStor and the lure of new technology
Over the years, various folks at Grist have written excited posts about an outfit called EEStor, which promised ultracapacitors that would revolutionize the battery industry. The company struck deals with electric car company Zenn (in 2007) and defense contractor Lockheed Martin (in 2008); it promised to start production within months (in 2007, and 2008, and 2009 …). Then, after several delays, Zenn bought the company outright (in 2013), a seeming show of confidence. In the interim, EEStor’s CEO said things like:
You can put 45 percent more electricity on the grid and do nothing more than put our batteries on there. … that electricity could supply the electricity to the electric vehicle market as it emerges … we make wind and solar real … you can make a wind farm operate like a coal-fired plant and it’s really cost-effective.
We can take a battery for a cell phone and give you three to five times more energy storage that would never degrade on you and you can charge in seconds.
I wrote about it several times, saying, “If the Texas company EEStor is running a scam, it’s a frakking brilliant one” and “If this is a bluff, it is one of the ballsier, more elaborate bluffs the cleantech world has ever seen.”
Gold star if you can guess where this is going.
In April, while I was on break, I saw this headline: “ZENN Motor Company’s EEStor technology fails again after year of excuses.” Then, a few weeks later, I saw this story:
[Stock in] Zenn Motor Co. Inc., a maker of emission-free, energy efficient transportation, dropped to the lowest in a year after saying its chairman will resign this month. …
Effective May 19, James Kofman will resign as its Chairman, Interim CEO and as a director, the Toronto, Ontario-based company said in a statement today.
The company also announced that Allan Gregg, a director, has resigned effective May 19, and the transition consulting contract of Jamin Patrick has not been extended. …
The resignations come in the wake of the infamous drawn-out EEStor battery fiasco.
So much for that.
One lesson here is that batteries are a really difficult problem. The battery industry is perpetually promising revolution and perpetually not quite there yet. Everybody — in personal electronics, electric cars, clean energy — wants and needs better batteries. This has created a high demand for promising technologies and thus fertile ground for various sorts of hucksters to convince other people (and themselves) that they’ve got the tiger by the tail. In any industry, claims of “breakthrough” technology should be viewed skeptically, but especially in batteries.
There’s also a broader lesson, though, about technology generally. It is human nature to wish for technological solutions to knotty social problems. It’s certainly a deeply ingrained part of the American psyche. Watch any TV show or movie set in the future and there’s always been some miraculous new energy source discovered. It usually glows blue, for some reason.
When it comes to climate change, in particular, the problem is so daunting it can seem that only a deus ex machina could save us. Whether it’s nuclear fusion or carbon capture and sequestration or batteries that charge in seconds, everyone’s got a few favorites they pin their hopes on.
But the reality is that genuine technological breakthroughs are extremely rare, especially in energy. And even when there are new technologies, they take a long, long time to substantially impact the global energy system, which is f’ing huge. Revolutions are rare in practice but frequently forecast. If every promised breakthrough and revolution in the press had panned out, we’d be living on Mars with jetpacks already.
The big changes in energy since I started paying attention have not been technological (with the possible exception of hydraulic fracturing combined with lateral drilling, which unleashed the fracking revolution). The astonishing rise of solar has mostly involved a 50-year-old technology, photovoltaic panels, driven by huge new subsidies from China and clever new business models like solar leasing and reduction in so-called “soft costs” like customer acquisition. Energy-efficiency gains continue to be driven by policy, e.g., Obama’s new fuel-economy standards. Wind became the leading source of capacity additions in the U.S. in 2012, not with any revolution, just the incremental improvement of existing tech and the steady decline in costs. Batteries haven’t seen their long-promised breakthrough, but trusty old lithium-ion batteries continue to improve. Tesla is ditching its patents and building a huge battery factory, both of which will have more effect on battery markets than any technology in decades.
This isn’t to say we don’t need revolutionary new technology. And even if we didn’t need it, even if it were theoretically possible to tackle climate change without it, we’d want it anyway, because why the hell wouldn’t we? It’s revolutionary. It might even glow blue.
So yeah, we should be spending a lot more on research and innovation. But we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that political, economic, and social reform can and do drive enormous progress even in the absence of new technology. There’s no reason to get giddy at every overwrought new press release; nor is there any reason to despair when long shots like EEStor collapse. The war on climate change has many fronts and technology is only one of them.