In this week’s commentary on WAMC Northeast Public Radio, Pace Energy & Climate Center Executive Director Franz Litz talks about the importance of innovation in addressing the momentous challenge of climate change.
“Knowing that time is running out to meet the climate change challenge, we also cannot help but hope for those new technological breakthroughs that will make clean energy the only obvious choice for us in the near future,” he says.
Litz discusses a book by Harvard Business School professor Sean Silverthorne chronicling this country’s green entrepreneurs. “Silverstone’s most revealing insight is that big new breakthroughs in the past have most often come from the margins of the business world—not from big corporate research and development departments. America is, after all, a nation of tinkerers and inventors, pioneers and adventurers, entrepreneurs and dreamers. This is as true today as it was 200 years ago,” Litz remarks.
He gives as an example the story of Bernie Karl, who built a hotel out of snow and ice in Alaska, only to see it melt the next year. After Forbes magazine named the hotel the “dumbest business idea of the year,” Karl set out to disprove it and developed “a radical technology designed to tap geothermal energy. Over the course of two years, Karl battled through a series of setbacks and pioneered a geothermal energy technology that R&D Magazine and the U.S. Department of Energy named one of the top 100 technological breakthroughs of 2007. ” He has since licensed the technology to United Technologies, an industrial conglomerate in Hartford, CT.
If we had a comprehensive energy policy in this country—if Republicans and Democrats in Congress could finally put aside their differences in the name of the public interest—that energy policy would make more Bernie Karls rich. Reducing global warming pollution is too important to let fossil fuel interests continue to rule the day. We must establish the right incentives to drive markets for new clean energy ideas.
Since coming to office, the Obama administration has ratcheted up the federal government’s funding for clean-energy innovation. But as the stimulus funds run out, with no federal energy legislation likely to take its place, we are about to be back where we were. We can expect, for example, a battle over the production tax credit that supports the wind power pioneered by those Jacobs brothers nearly a hundred years ago. One step forward, two steps back.
If there are any bright spots in the energy policy picture, they are in the states. Connecticut, New York, Massachusetts and Vermont all continue to do their parts at the state level. As we enter another election year, though, we need to insist that the federal government follow suit.