Going to Washington. I’ve also heard that the green energy movement is going to Washington, probably right after the elections in November. For the Internet we went to Washington to build Al Gore’s Information Superhighway. And the Internet bubble burst. Remember, live by the sword, die by the sword. When innovators go to Washington, it’s a Pro-Am match—professionals versus amateurs—and innovators are the Ams. The status quo can be dangerous and downright mean, and they own Washington. The status quo’s monopolies are very good at lobbying and litigation.
When you go to Washington to get stuff, sometimes you get the wrong stuff, like subsidies for corn ethanol—the wrong feedstock for the wrong fuel. The best thing about corn ethanol is that taxpayer money is being misspent in the Middle West instead of the Middle East. Washington thought that the markets for corn—feed, food, fuel—were separate. Wrong.
When your movement goes to Washington, you also get things like the Department of Energy. The next time we go to Washington, could we start by fixing the DOE? The department developed bad policies, such as not building nuclear power plants for 30 years. The DOE is also malfunctioning by soaking up energy research dollars in its huge and inefficient, congressionally mandated labs—dollars that would be better spent at competing research universities. Be careful when you go to Washington, thinking it’s going to fix things, thinking that’s the way to scale up energy innovations.
Scale. It is indeed a big challenge. The world needs scalable solutions. But be careful about demands for scale early in the process of technological innovation. One of the weapons used by defenders of the status quo is to set high hurdles for innovations. They say, “It’s got to be safe, of course, and it has to scale, or we and our friends in government are not going to let you do it.” In Washington legislators make laws that discourage new technologies when it is not immediately obvious how the technologies are going to scale. The telephone monopolies got Washington to make rules about the Internet that said, “If you can’t serve everybody, then you can’t serve anybody.” Which meant innovators couldn’t start small and grow new technologies, driving them down steep cost curves. You had to serve everyone, all at once, right out of the lab. That’s too high a hurdle for new technologies. So watch out when people demand that we consider only energy solutions that scale, which often turns out to mean only mature technologies already in the hands of the status quo.
Note: This article was originally printed with the title, "Learning from the Internet".