Thursday, July 15, 2010

A Major Piece: "Why the tech revolution isn’t a template for an energy revolution"

We've been following Mr. Smil for a while. Some interesting links after the headline story, from the Financial Times' Energy Source:

It seems a long time ago now, but back in February there was an awful lot of fuss about an energy company that had supposedly come up with a revolutionary new technology.

Of course, it wasn’t that simple, despite the roster of Silicon Valley stars that lined up to trial the company’s wares. Yet breathless reports of exciting energy technologies continue to pop up periodically, particularly in recent years in connection with the information technology world, as many IT entrepreneurs have decided to focus on ‘clean tech’. Some have no doubt made big inroads, such as electric car maker Tesla.

But the idea that the great leaps made by IT and networking technologies in the past decade can be easily transferred to the looming energy challenge is shallow and misleading.
As Vaclav Smil, a prominent energy writer and professor at the University of Manitoba, wrote:
I have named this delusion Moore’s curse because (unlike the crowding of transistors on a microchip) it is fundamentally (that is thermodynamically) impossible for the machines and processes that now constitute the complex infrastructure of global energy extraction, conversion, transportation and transmission to double their capacity or performance, microchip-like, every 18-24 months.
Why is this? There are several reasons:

Coming up with new energy systems doesn’t offer fun or lucrative new services
With energy you only want to do one thing: provide people with ways to power their lives (including transportation). And that one thing has a lot of constraints: it has to be affordable, deliverable, constant and safe in both the short- and long-term.

Unlike the internet, the energy infrastructure has no application layer upon which all sorts of diverting and profitable services can be built. Yes, smart meters might be entertaining for a while; but energy itself does not lend itself to exciting new consumer-end products. Marketing counts for little, if anything.

Energy is more important
And why should it? Energy is simpler and less exciting precisely because it is more important than some other things; it underlies and powers everything electrical, industrial, and most forms of transport.,,,MUCH MORE
Some posts on Smil:
Energy: "The man who’s tutoring Bill Gates … " 
"Innovation, Schminnovation – Welcome to the Boring Age" 
In Energy Innovation, Everything New Is Old Again
And some on innovation:
Free download: 10 terabytes of patents and trademarks (GOOG) 
"Wanted: A First National Bank of Innovation" 
Bill Gates: "Why We Need Innovation, Not Just Insulation" (BRK.A; MSFT) 
Fail Often, Fail Fast: "Are We Behind On Innovation That Matters?" 
What It Takes: Building a Materials Science Company for the 21st Century
 Q&A: Mark Little, Head of GE Global Research- "GE is pushing the smart grid and thin-film solar, but don't expect new kinds of nuclear reactors. " 
DOE places bets on 'transformative' energy tech

Venture Capital: "Selling Agriculture 2.0 to Silicon Valley"
With apologies to Grant Wood, the first thing I thought of when I saw this story a couple days ago was: