Skip to content

Is anyone a superhero or willing to pour lots of money into “innovation”?

2012 May 22

Unobtainium, the Tesseract, and some form of Octupus fusion.

Like Secretary Steven Chu, I also went to see The Avengers recently, and chuckled when discussion of “The Tesseract” came up. You see, when the Tesseract is not busy opening up portals through space through which gods can travel, it can provide “limitless clean energy”. This seems to be an increasingly common theme for superhero/fantasy films. In Avatar, the ‘Mericans are after Unobtainium, which could provide energy for all (we ran out apparently), and enough of this magical substance was located under a tree (a rather big one, albeit, and apparently important to the Navi). In Spider-Man 2, Otto Octavius is working on a new form of fusion power that will also provide clean energy for everyone. In a late scene in the movie, the reaction becomes “self-sustaining” and has to be extinguished with a little NYC East River bath. Now in the Avengers, the supreme clean energy comes in a convenient cube form! My friend suggested that this theme of clean energy comes up in blockbuster movies because it’s a problem that younger audiences would like to solve. If that is true, and you only have 90-120 minutes to spare, then that source of clean energy is going to come from one magical technology. And I hope the superheroes and villains won’t get distracted into using that magical technology for evil purposes like powering nuclear weapons and making super-strong Octupus arms.

One of the most debated topics in clean energy policy today is: how we will get huge amounts of low-carbon, clean energy? One school of thought contends that we have a pretty decent toolbox already of efficiency and renewable energy technologies, and we need the right policies (renewable portfolio standards, cap and trade, strong efficiency standards) to push these technologies into the marketplace – to mandate their deployment. The other school of thought contends that the problem is far too large for currently available technologies even if they come down in cost; the solution does not exist yet and we need huge R&D programs to “innovate” our way to a solution. Let’s call these schools of thought “deployment” and “innovation”.

Secretary Chu, although coming from a basic science and R&D background, is essentially with the “deployment” school of thought. After talking about the Avengers for a bit, he ends his Facebook post with a plea to extend the production tax credit for renewable energy, which is a deployment policy that has been used on and off for at least a decade now in the U.S. Other notable folks in this school of thought include Joe Romm of the think-tank Center for American Progress, who is consistently advocating for a carbon price or extensions on expiring clean energy deployment policies. They think R&D is good too, but the focus should be on deployment.

The rabble rousers at the Breakthrough Institute are of the “innovation” school of thought. They have buttressed their arguments, and their friend Roger Pielke Jr. of U C Boulder has fortressed them even further. Their conclusion: we really aren’t going to solve climate change and get to 100% low-carbon, clean energy without a major R&D program, and a carbon price really isn’t going to help much. They say it’s R&D programs for unconventional gas that have brought on the shale gas boom, and it’s R&D programs that will invent the next “breakthrough” technology, thus the name of their institute.

I’m all for R&D, but these Breakthrough guys make it their job to dismiss carbon prices as a weak policy and that kind of ticks me off. My question for them is: what the f*** is this breakthrough technology going to be? Cold fusion with octupus arms, unobtainium, or the Tesseract? If we upped clean energy R&D spend from $5 billion to $80 billion (Dept of Defense levels), can your models guarantee we will end up with a satisfactory solution? If not, why do you spend so much time dismissing certain deployment policies?

While you’re answering my questions, I’m gonna go color in my Energy Battle Royale coloring book, which offers a myriad of possible solutions and players that are currently available, as opposed to the silver bullet breakthrough technology that will likely never exist. Also, Hollywood, stop littering the world’s minds with the possibility of “limitless clean energy”. Instead, please make this coloring book into a movie. Thanks. Love, the Energy Nerds.

I'm not kidding. This coloring book actually exists. It's really badass. Source:

  • Alvin

    Um, that’s kinda their shtick. “We need massive R&D to find a breakthrough clean energy technology!” and so we don’t have to really do anything now till we find that technology, because when we have it, it’s gonna be awesome, revolutionary, etc.

  • Facebook