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Renewable Energy Innovation

November 6, 2013

There's an adage that you can't do things the same way and expect a different result. In one sense, this is reassuring, since taking the same road each morning will bring you to work as intended. In another sense, governments and companies need to realize that they need to invest in research and development and innovate if they want future success. I could insert the buggy whip analogy, as taught in economics courses; but, I'll innovate, and write instead about asbestos.

Asbestos was the miracle material of the last century, since it was an abundant, inexpensive, fireproof mineral with one property quite unlike those of other minerals. Its fibrous texture allowed its manufacture into fabric-like articles for use in everything from pipe insulation to theater curtains. In chemical factories and laboratories, asbestos was used as an acid-resistant gasket material, furnace insulation, and "Transite" countertops.

We now know that asbestos is a health hazard. Tens of thousands of shipyard workers may have died because of asbestos exposure. Especially worrisome is the asbestos used for fire safety in the construction of schools. As the marketing people say, there are no problems, just opportunities, and we now have a thriving industry of asbestos abatement.

Figure captionThe chrysotile form of asbestos, nominally Mg3(Si2O5)(OH)4, showing its fibrous nature.

The vast majority of industrial asbestos was prepared from this form.

(US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Image.)

A soon as it was realized that asbestos should no longer be used in its many applications, materials scientists innovated and developed replacement materials. That's why I had non-asbestos insulated gloves, made from ceramic fiber, in my laboratory in the 1980s.

Such necessary innovation is happening now with energy, now that our traditional sources have proven to be toxic to the environment. A recent study, published in PLoS ONE by Luís M. A. Bettencourt of the Santa Fe Institute (Santa Fe, New Mexico) and Los Alamos National Laboratory (Los Alamos, New Mexico), and his colleagues at the Sante Fe Institute, MIT, and Indiana University (Bloomington, Indiana), reviewed the rapid pace of innovation in renewable energy research.[1-2]

I mentioned a previous study by Bettencourt and colleagues in another article (Modeling Cities, July 26, 2013).[3] That study, in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, was on quality of life issues relating to increased urbanization. That study found that some metrics of urban life, such as wealth, increase exponentially with population density, whereas most infrastructure metrics, such as fuel consumption, have an exponential decline.

For the present study, the research team assembled a database of 73,000 patents for energy-related technologies in more than a hundred countries in the period 1970-2008. Energy-related patents were identified by keyword search, not by the classification assigned by the various patent offices. A recent surge in patents appeared in many renewable energy technologies.[2]

The number of solar energy patents increased by 13% annually between 2004 and 2009; and the number of wind energy patents increased 19% annually. For comparison, the annual growth rate approached or exceeded that for similar high-tech areas, such as digital communications and semiconductor devices. There were fewer than 200 renewable energy patent issued per year in the United States from 1975-2000, but this increased to more than a thousand annually by 2009. Even fossil fuel patents showed an uptick (see graph).[1]

Figure captionThe trend in energy patents from 1974-2008 shows rapid growth in the last decade.

(Portion of fig. 1 of ref. 1, published under a Creative Commons License.)

The research team argues that much of this innovation arose from funding seeds planted during earlier energy crisis situations. There is also the idea of innovation feeding upon past innovation, a "standing on the shoulders of giants" effect.[1-2] Says MIT assistant professor of engineering and study co-author, Jessika Trancik, "...this persistence of knowledge is significant - and comforting, in a way.”[2]

In new technology, there's always the "chicken-and-egg" problem that some technologies need investment, but the improvements they offer are not apparent and not are valued in the market.[4] Longer battery life in a cellphone is valued by consumers, but whether or not the recharging electricity comes from a renewable source is usually not. Government funding of research in such new technologies with a deep horizon is important, as are government subsidies, incentives and tax breaks, or these technologies might never mature.[2]

China has been faulted for merely commercializing technologies invented elsewhere, and being successful through innovation only in production processes. The PLoS ONE study, however, shows a dramatic recent growth in the number of renewable-energy technology patents filed in China.[2] Although the number includes filings by entities outside China, the idea that companies feel a need for such defensive patents indicates their belief that China will be a future player in this technology area.

Figure caption
Cumulative patents by region for photovoltaics (left) and coal (right). (Portion of fig. 2 of ref. 1, published under a Creative Commons License.)

The authors developed a mathematical model that uses R&D funding and private investment to predict the number of patents, and this model fits the data quite well.[1] The research was supported by Los Alamos National Laboratory, the National Science Foundation, the Army Research Office, and the Solomon Buchsbaum Research Fund of MIT.[2]


  1. Luís M. A. Bettencourt, Jessika E. Trancik and Jasleen Kaur, "Determinants of the Pace of Global Innovation in Energy Technologies," PLoS ONE, vol. 8, no. 10 (October 14, 2013), article e67864.
  2. David L. Chandler,, "Innovation in renewable-energy technologies is booming," MIT Press Release, October 10, 2013.
  3. Lués M. A. Bettencourt, José Lobo, Dirk Helbing, Christian Kühnert, and Geoffrey B. West, "Growth, innovation, scaling, and the pace of life in cities," Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. vol. 104, no. 17 (April 24, 2007), pp. 7301-7306.
  4. Jennifer Jacquet, Kristin Hagel, Christoph Hauert, Jochem Marotzke, Torsten Röhl and Manfred Milinski, "Intra- and intergenerational discounting in the climate game," Nature Climate Change (Advance Online Publication, October 20, 2013), doi:10.1038/nclimate2024

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