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Charlie WilsonSolar-powered flying skateboards: Central to your typical 8-year-old’s vision of a climate-friendly future, but, alas, destined only for the world of science fiction.

But all is not lost. Many other forms of energy technology innovation lie squarely within the realms of science. And scientists working on how to address climate change see innovation as key to addressing climate change.

The question is how do we innovate successfully? The history of energy innovation is littered with over-exuberance, pipe dreams, and white elephants. But it’s also marked by striking successes, such as the world-leading Danish wind power and Brazilian ethanol industries, or the energy efficiency of Japanese consumer products.

Our new book scours the pages of history to work out what has distinguished past successes from failures. We cast a critical eye on twenty varied innovation histories of energy technologies, from large to small, old to new, and supply to end-use. We are interested both in the technologies that now dominate our landscape as well as technologies that have faded from public view.

Our motivation for the book was to find out: how can we innovate successfully to address climate change? We don’t come up with all the answers, but we do think we can point the way.

A systemic perspective on energy technology innovation

Successful innovation is like a puzzle: you need all the pieces to see the whole picture. But history shows us that innovation policy, research, analysis, and market activity have too frequently focused on a particular piece of the puzzle.

Research and development (R&D) is a good example. Energy-related R&D activities are dominated by private firms. But governments play a crucial role in supporting and investing in R&D with less immediate prospects and less certain pay-offs. When we looked at the history of R&D, we found that public R&D efforts often targeted early and rapid upscaling of promising new technologies. This was particularly the case for energy supply technologies, including wind turbines, solar thermal plants , synthetic fuels, and nuclear power.

Building big can help reduce costs. But cost reductions from upscaling are by no means guaranteed. They depend on all sorts of other things: experimentation and testing, often for prolonged periods; entrepreneurs trying out applications in different market niches; early adopters demonstrating its advantages; underlying investments in skills, training, and human capital; shared expectations around a technology’s prospects; mechanisms to share and exchange knowledge about what works; a consistent market environment without cyclical or stop-start activity that leads to turnover in workforces and the loss of acquired knowledge.

These are just some of the other pieces of the puzzle, elements of the broader innovation system. The cost reductions sought by policymakers and technology developers may be the corner piece that holds the rest together. But it doesn’t make a picture on its own.

This is why advocates of an Apollo program or Manhattan project for low-carbon technologies are wrong. These historical examples of singular science-led R&D programs are poor analogues for what’s needed in today’s energy market environment, with discerning consumers, profit-seeking developers, and cash-poor governments.

We need silver buckshot not silver bullets, diverse portfolios of options not one-shot, large-scale panaceas. Diversity means entrepreneurialism, risk-taking, variety, and experimentation in technology development, learning processes to sustain performance improvements through market deployment, and support for and protection of niche markets by public policy. More and more pieces of the puzzle.

Learning from history

Our book identifies the hallmarks of historical innovation successes and sets out how we can apply these lessons towards a low-carbon future. We put the puzzle together to reveal the picture of a comprehensive yet simple framework for analyzing energy technology innovation.

An innovation systems perspective makes transparently clear that successful innovation is founded on effectively functioning innovation systems. An inter-dependent mesh of knowledge, institutions, use, and resources that cohere to support new technologies through development and out into the market. With a critical role for consistent, continuous and aligned policy support for all the elements of the energy system.

That corner piece? Well, it’s an important piece of the puzzle … but it’s only a piece.

Charlie Wilson is a lecturer at the University of East Anglia and led the UK Energy Research Centre VERD project. The book ‘Energy Technology Innovation: Learning from Historical Successes and Failures’ is edited by Arnulf Grubler and Charlie Wilson, and published by Cambridge University Press. It’s available online here.