I recently gave a talk at IEEE in Austin about how the present state of energy is based upon the mass market and that the mass market’s requirements don’t foster innovation. They foster the status quo.
I began with a simple question, “How many people in this room think that we have the best energy system(s) today?” If you think we have the best systems in place to deliver energy where we need it, then you’ll be happy with incremental change. If not, then we need to think differently about how we produce, deliver, and use energy. Existing mass market players do not have the strong incentive to think differently.
One requirement the status quo places upon innovations is that those new technologies must scale. If they don’t scale, they won’t solve our problems and therefore are not viable solutions according to status quo thinkers. A common example is energy writers, politicians, or utility executive’s criticism of wind and solar that they can’t scale. Currently, they supply only 2% of today’s energy needs. That’s not enough, they say.
My argument is this. If scale is the main requirement of new technologies, we will suppress innovation. New technologies can’t scale to mass market size right off the line for reasons that go far beyond technology. As I see it, there are three stages to innovation:
1) creation of new technologies
2) initial market niches for new technologies
3) penetration and scaling of these now not so new technologies
The status quo argues that new technologies must be born into stage three. If this were in fact true in the petroleum industry, then gasoline would still be a waste product of kerosene production, the main lighting fuel of the 1870’s and 1880’s.
I then go on to argue by analogy that in energy, we are poised for great change in the same way we were poised for great change in other industries.