June 28, 2010

The Gap Between IT and ET

For professional reasons1, I've refrained from commenting on the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, to say nothing of the political or policy consequences. I did, however, want to highlight this post by Gail the Actuary over at The Oil Drum in relation to the spill:
Many individuals and groups, from Scientific American magazine, to school systems, to Energy Secretary Chu would seem to be telling us that technology can solve all of our problems.

And we have seen an endless array of new fancy gadgets over the years, starting with calculators, then computers, electric copying machines, the Internet, portable phones, and all kinds of devices to play music and send messages. These all seem to suggest that technology can do marvelous things.

Now, we are confronted with what should be not too difficult a problem--cutting off the oil flow from a well--and we find it is difficult to do. Perhaps the Deepwater Horizon blowout is an event that should get us to rethink our assumptions a bit.
The important thing to note here is that all of the technological advances that Gail mentions come in the field of information technology, which has indeed seen a flurry of innovation in the last few decades, the likes of which humanity has seldom, if ever, witnessed. Now, many of the same people involved in the IT revolution are moving into the energy business in the hope of accomplishing the same thing there. Hence, for example, the astonishing level of enthusiasm a few months ago over the introduction of the Bloom Box, which is, essentially, a very fancy battery. Innovation in energy, however, is a rather different animal from innovation in manipulating data. IT may be ruled by Moore's Law, but ET (energy technology) is ruled by the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which is a much tougher nut to crack. IT also benefits from the fact that, as a relatively young field, there wasn't very much in the way of regulatory hurdles or path dependence to get in the way of its development -- and to the extent that there were regulatory issues, they were mostly favorable during the critical early years. (See, for example, this review (PDF) of the impact of the FCC's Computer inquiries on the Internet's development.) Energy, however, has not been a wide open field for a long time, with its recent history characterized more by regulated utilities and oil cartels than by bottom-up innovation.

The point of mentioning all this is that our mental model for how innovation works has been shaped by our recent experience with innovation in computers and the Internet, a model that may not serve us well when figuring out to how develop more sustainable sources of energy. It's great to have new-fangled approaches to producing and storing energy, of course, but there's much more to be said for getting the policy right, so that the right solutions, old or new, can arise without difficulty.

1 Email me if you want to know the details.