Class 5 - The Structure of an Energy Technology Revolution

Session Overview


Given the powerful and increasing importance of energy innovation in climate change and security contexts, this class will provide students with a close look at the systemic challenges now faced by the energy innovation system and draw on lessons from prior classes for possible organizational solutions.


The instructor will review the innovation policy elements that could be considered as part of a major federal program to stimulate innovation in energy technology, which is now starting to evolve. Given the central role of energy in the economy and the variety of new technologies needed, this program may need to approach the dimensions of a major military transformational effort, going beyond research and development to include all aspects of the innovation process. It would also need to be as technology neutral as far as possible, consistent with the need for measures to overcome obstacles specific to particular technologies. Ideally, such a technology supply-side program should be accompanied by market demand policies that ensure market entry for new technologies. However, given interests opposing and threatened by such measures, political support for such demand-side policies in Congress and the executive branch appear to be some years away. The political barriers to a technology supply-side strategy, on the other hand, are not as high.

Given the depth of the need for new energy technology, a supply side program arguably will be needed even if demand measures are adopted. Numerous authoritative publications have called for an expansion of energy research and development as a complement to demand-side measures. However, the specific mechanisms by which the development, deployment and diffusion of these technologies might be facilitated by government action have been left largely unstudied. A hard look at these specific mechanisms will be a major topic in the class. The new R&D elements evolving at the Department of Energy, such as ARPA-E and the Energy Frontier Research Centers will be reviewed, along with the potential role of the Defense Department in creating energy technology testbeds and initial markets, and the possible role of a government corporation for demonstration financing. Policy options for a fallback plan to carbon pricing will be explored.

Lecture Notes

The Challenge of Energy Technology (PDF)


Required Reading

Bonvillian, William B., and Charles Weiss. "Taking Covered Wagons East: A New Innovation Theory for Energy and Other Established Sectors." Innovations 4, no. 4 (2009): 289-300.

Other Readings for Class Discussion

Socolow, Robert H., and Stephen W. Pacala. "A Plan to Keep Carbon in Check." Scientific American 295, no. 3 (2006): 50-57.

Deutch, John M. "What Should the Government Do to Encourage Technical Change in the Energy Sector?" Report No. 120, Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change, MIT, May 2005. (This resource may not render correctly in a screen reader.PDF)

"Statement of Deputy Undersecretary of Defense for Installations and Environment Dr. Dorothy Robyn before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee." January 27, 2010.

Alic, John, Daniel Sarewitz, Charles Weiss, and William Bonvillian. "A New Strategy for Energy Innovation." Nature 466 (2010): 316-317.

Bonvillian, William B. "Time for Climate Plan B." Issues in Science and Technology. Winter 2010-2011.