Don’t lock out the next generation of green tech

Don’t lock out the next generation of green tech

From modularized nuclear reactors to renewable natural gas systems to facilities that convert energy from ocean waves into electricity, the potential for clean technology to reshape our energy sector is massive. And yet many of these technologies are struggling for a foothold in the market. While wind and solar may be today’s innovative approach, it may not be the case forever.

Here’s the problem: Current policies created to help today’s green tech threaten to slow down the next generation of clean energy technology.

Established green tech receives a tremendous amount of support. According to a 2016 report from the U.S. Energy Information Agency, between 18 and 41 percent of all energy subsidies during the years measured went to wind and solar (for context, natural gas and petroleum received between 5 and 10 percent). In addition, energy policies (such as net metering) and energy mandates (such as renewable portfolio standards) are driving up demand for existing technologies. And many states have taken these steps even further. California, for example, will soon require solar panels to be placed on every new home built in the state after 2020.


In the long term, this near-singular focus on solar and wind will be quite problematic for environmental innovation. Researchers at the MIT Energy Initiative warn of the risk tunnel vision poses to further developing the nation’s energy portfolio, calling it “technological lock-in.” As an industry begins to adopt a favored technology, the market adapts and it becomes locked-in for the foreseeable future. The danger is that other innovations become “stranded” as we inadvertently close off otherwise-promising pathways that could lead to better and cleaner technology over the long run.

A similar situation can easily occur if politicians, as opposed to industry, lock in wind and solar power at the expense of a newer tech. Subsidies for these technologies make them more attractive and cause customers to ignore newer technological advances, which makes it more difficult to develop a broad enough customer base to get off the ground.

There are a number of companies that could dramatically change how we think about clean energy — but could also find it hard to grow as they compete against the subsidies for wind and solar.

For example, a number of companies are pioneering small modular nuclear reactor (SMR) designs. These reactors are expected to reduce energy costs thanks to designs that can be fabricated in a warehouse off-site, transported on a semi-truck, and delivered ready for on-site installation. Amazingly, they are also much safer than larger reactors. Oregon’s NuScale Power recently had its SMR design certified by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission as walk-away safe, meaning it doesn’t require the traditional electrical back-up and safeguards that traditional large reactors require.

Moreover, Kore Infrastructure has developed technology that can process sewage and biowaste into renewable methane. The by-products of the process are water and biochar, a form of charcoal that can help return carbon dioxide to the ground and help mitigate the effects of carbon emissions. This kind of technology can be utilized in a number of areas, from city sanitation departments to paper mills, and it could revolutionize how private industry approaches the potential impacts of anthropogenic climate change.

At the end of the day, we can’t afford to lose sight of the forest for the trees. We’ll wind up with strong wind and solar industries and a number of stranded innovations that could have taken us much further.

Instead of locking in specific clean energy technologies, policymakers should look for opportunities to diversify our future energy portfolio by creating a level playing field that empowers entrepreneurs to plant as many seeds as possible. We’re more likely to reshape our energy industry by focusing on tomorrow’s dynamic innovation rather than yesterday’s static policy preferences.

As concerns over carbon emissions grow, there will be no shortage of willing and able entrepreneurs to step up and help solve the problem. Wind and solar will no doubt be a part of our future energy sector, but it should also include approaches that may not be commercially viable today.

The worst thing policymakers could do at this point is to pick a winner or two from the large basket of promising innovations, bestowing commercial viability on a few technologies at the expense of many more. Let’s keep the door open for creative solutions to our energy issues without preference or politics.

Christopher Koopman is an affiliated scholar with the Mercatus Center at George Mason University and a senior director with the Center for Growth and Opportunity at Utah State University. Brian Isom is a research manager with the Center for Growth and Opportunity.