We need disruptive innovation


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Cheap, accessible energy is so integrated into our lives that it is a fundamental American expectation. We flip a switch and the power comes on. We drive to the corner and fill the gas tank. Perhaps the greatest challenge faced by the U.S. Dept. of Energy today is to overcome this national sense of energy entitlement.

Because energy is affordable and available, it fuels our businesses and our homes, economy, and lifestyles. But while the current model keeps the lights on, it no longer offers a sustainable model for the future. Increased global demand for energy, shrinking supplies, and global climate change are driving an urgent need for innovation and new paradigms.

The world has awakened from a peaceful slumber of business as usual to the nightmare realization that we can significantly degrade our quality of life—now and for future generations—if we don't confront the challenges ahead of us now.

And the issue is not just about energy supply, but emissions from use of energy, as well. Secretary of Energy Dr. Steven Chu and many eminent scientists point to the need to cut carbon dioxide emissions 80% by the year 2050 just to keep atmospheric levels within 15% to 20% of today's levels, which already are 40% higher than before the industrial revolution. They warn that we cannot get there on efficiencies and conservation alone.

There is a critical need, they say, for “disruptive” innovation—transformational technologies and Nobel-caliber breakthroughs—if we are to meet this goal.

Our national leadership is helping to advance this innovation. Even in the first 100 days, President Obama's administration and the DOE have begun to implement significant changes in our nation's approach. They are supplementing current research at our national laboratories through expanded collaborations with universities and industry. More investment is being directed toward basic and applied research. More is helping to move us to wind and other renewable sources of power. More is addressing our aging infrastructure, bringing 21st century smart grid technologies to our 20th century grid.

The debate continues on the commercial viability of these new technologies compared to readily available supplies of coal and oil. But the sound bites can be deceiving. It is possible to oversimplify this challenge, and to see it just as about where energy comes from and how much it costs. But the economic impacts of moving to carbon-neutral energy must be weighed against the consequences of not making those choices, as well, particularly when these include an expensive, harmful legacy for the next generation, such as carbon in the atmosphere. They also should be weighed against the national security issues that are complicated by our dependence on foreign oil.

There is a social justice component, as well. Horace Mann wrote that, “A different world cannot be built by indifferent people.” The transformational technologies of the future must address not only the aging infrastructure of developed nations, but also the fundamental need for infrastructure in those so far behind.

The time is now, and we must ensure that our national leaders and energy industry aim for the future, combining growth and expansion of our standard of living with sustainable solutions to our complex challenges.

Author Information

Cooley is president and CEO of NextEnergy, one of the nation's accelerators of alternative and renewable energy. Prior to joining NextEnergy, Cooley was the Director of the Dept. of Labor & Economic Growth and a cabinet member to the governor of Michigan.

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