Energy innovation needs a champion

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Can you name a company that has invented or completely changed a global industry in the last 10 years? Was it an energy company? Probably not.

You don’t have to surf the web too long to find a lot of people talking about energy innovation. Business leaders. Politicians. Environmentalists. And you don’t have to watch TV too long to see oil, gas and coal companies selling the idea that they’re hard at work in search of tomorrow’s miracle fuel.

The fact that so many companies are talking about energy innovation is a good thing. It shows they understand the business case for clean energy and realize that carbon reduction is necessary. But too many of these conversations end without action or result in little change.

We need paradigm shifts

We need energy innovation on par with the light bulb, assembly line, personal computer and iPhone.

Solar panel installation
The clean economy, which employs some 2.7 million workers, encompasses a significant number of jobs in establishments spread across a diverse group of industries. Via The Brookings Institution

These breakthroughs didn’t slightly improve existing technologies, they revolutionized them. Moreover, none of these breakthroughs were made by companies making billions of dollars by selling the technology they were trying to displace.

Harvard economist Clayton Christensen named this the “Innovator’s Dilemma.” The bigger companies get and the more profitable their current products become, the less likely they are to innovate technologies that will threaten existing profit centers. It’s completely valid to ask skeptically, “Why would Exxon spend billions to find an alternative to oil?” Just as you’d ask “Why would Burger King want me to cook more family meals at home?”

Certainly, Apple has a unique history of introducing new products that displace current ones. Steve Jobs said that if anyone was going to make Apple’s products obsolete, he wanted it to be Apple. But that approach is absent among the “energy elites.”

Energy innovators face industry inertia and partisan politics

Tomorrow’s clean energy technology is being developed by small, innovative and entrepreneurial businesses around the world. These businesses are raising and risking capital to push our country into the next century. As in all industries, these businesses realize that many will fail for each one that succeeds. They have chosen to take that risk not to build a better widget or launch a new website, but to help us innovate our way to less dependence on fossil fuels.

Xtreme Power
Diversifying the U.S. energy portfolio reduces reliance on imported fuels, stabilizes electricity costs, bolsters energy security and protects our air, water, land and health.

And boy, do they have a steep hill in front of them. Their quest for invention is constantly overshadowed by a hyper-politicized debate where any change is framed as an assault on capitalism. It would be difficult enough to disrupt a trillion dollar industry with a century of inertia behind it. But unlike other industries, energy innovators are often pigeon-holed as tree-huggers first and business people second.

We’ve been meeting innovative enterprises across the country, and we know better. These entrepreneurs and companies are being energized by a realization that our energy economy must change, but they’re just as eager for a significant payoff as any Internet start-up in Silicon Valley.

We’re shining a light on energy innovation bright spots

It’s time our country celebrated, rewarded….even demanded…innovation in the energy industry the way it has nearly every other industry from telephones to computers. Those of us on the environmental side of things know there’s a benefit bigger than profit, but in a trillion dollar (and growing) market, there’s room for more than a few Apples or Googles.

The EDF Energy Innovation Series promotes the role innovation has played in the energy industry and highlights clean energy technologies and new business models that hold the promise of revolutionizing the way we create, transport, manage and use energy.

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Send an email to Communications Director Mica Odom for details on this series and EDF's US Climate and Energy program.

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The Energy Innovation Series is in no way an official endorsement by EDF of the companies or organizations featured, or their business models and practices.