The Myth of Energy Breakthroughs

Renewed belief in the concept of Energy Breakthrough seems resurgent these days, as a versatile scientist now helms the Department of Energy, and famous people such as Bill Gates invoke the need (and thus our quest) for energy miracles. The notion of a technological breakthrough was also, unsurprisingly, at play this weekend when I attended the MIT Energy Conference. And of course, in February, the world was treated to the roll out of Bloom Energy’s Bloom Box.

The problem with energy breakthroughs is that they actually require a Built Environment breakthrough. Energy transition, or the notion of disruptive energy technologies, are affairs that occur at the interface between an energy-source, energy-tools, and the built environment. I suppose coal was a kind of breakthrough for early 18th century (and wood-based) England but the barrier to coal adoption was that alot of England’s built environment was running on wood. You see, new energy sources or new energy technologies don’t distribute easily, or quickly, through the built environment.

It’s common among those who sell the idea of energy breakthrough to invoke electronic or digital adoption narratives. Breakthroughs in medicine, in electronic networks, and in other intellectual achievement distribute more easily upon existing systems. This is why I continue to believe that many (not all) in Cleantech Venture dont’ really understand the scale of our energy problem. Or, having understood the scale of our energy problem, many apply adoption pathways learned from other systems–that simply don’t translate to energy, and the built environment.

Let’s take a look at a 40 year chart of one of humankind’s oldest energy sources, Hydro energy, compared to use of Nuclear energy. It’s understandable that most would have considered nuclear power the epitome of energy breakthough, when first concieved. And, compared to hydro power, the chart seems to indicate a fast adoption of nuclear power–through the world’s built environment:

The disappointment comes, however, upon learning that Nuclear power still only provides a little more than 5.00% of the world’s primary energy. Hydro provides over 6.00%–thus eclipsing Nuclear after all these decades. No doubt, many will point to political and policy choices as barriers to adoption of nuclear. But, those political and policy factors are a direct outgrowth of nuclear’s enormous expense, time-to-completion, and safety costs. The barriers to nuclear power adoption relate more to the fact that it is not an energy breakthrough at all, in the sense that it did not easily dislocate coal, oil, or natural gas. Nuclear power neither undercut easily the cost of current energy sources, nor did it offer a way to easily transform existing energy sources to the built environment. This is why in the current debate between Amory Lovins and Stuart Brand (an excellent and friendly debate), I take the side of Lovins–who thinks we missed our date with destiny in nuclear, and that a grand pursuit of nuclear no longer makes sense.

I intend to write more this week on my experience at the (very fun) MIT Energy Conference, but the question one should ask all those who claim to be working on energy breakthroughs is how, in terms of engineering, time, and energy-cost, their idea will distribute through the current built environment.


  • My thesis still holds that the solution lies in decentralization, which is a theme that I expect to take hold, hopefully, sometime soon.

  • rks

    Well E=mcc. It's a brave call for countries to say: we don't need all that energy, we're going back to coal. No doubt in my mind that fission is doable, and the countries that get it right will dominate in 30 or so years. And most countries don't even have their own coal, so for them coal is an energy security trap. If you have enough cheap energy you can make liquid hydrocarbons [most easily by processing tar sands, which is why Alberta wants nuclear power].

  • burkbraun

    Well, the basic issue is not that we need breakthroughs, but that we need a price on carbon and on other coal-related pollution. That will make existing technologies (wind, storage, solar) economic, without any breakthroughs whatsoever. Once they are mainstream, their slow decline in cost will generate progressively greater margins and efficiencies.

  • usu has brooken my heart…nuclear shmuclear…try that phrase around MIT

  • FruityPimpernel

    As ever a thought provoking piece. I'd be interested to know how you think France fits into this picture. It generates a huge proportion of its electricity from nuclear (78% I believe) thanks to early political will and minimal (and surprising lack of) public and media opposition to the advent of widespread nuclear power generation.

    What would your response be to those who say this proves that with the right political will a nation can secure its energy though nuclear and that in that sense nuclear can really be a game changer?

  • William Bagns

    I must disagree with the assertion that nuclear is not a breakthrough simply because it's growth is slow. Nuclear is a superior method of power production as a technology, the problem is in politics and crushing regulation. I worked in the compliance group of a nuclear plant and we had over 40,000 unique law/regulations we tracked to show procedural compliance. This and a staff of ~30 compliance engineers, ~50 QA engineers while the engineering/operations staff responsible for running the plant as ~100.
    I admit that nuclear has the potential for catastrophic damage but procedure requirements made it so we needed 14 people to provide work-plans/signatures/documentation/procedures etc.. to service an ice machine.

    Politicians and advocates create road blocks for nuclear to increase the cost and then state it is to expensive to operate. Do some research on breeder reactors running in other counties, you can actually re-use the spent nuclear fuel to create more energy. Listen to the engineers, not the politicians.

    Yes, we will need energy storage methods for electricity from nuclear to replace petroleum in cars.

  • Scott Wilson

    An easy refutation of this argument is by pointing out a very large exception: France.

    In France, nuclear displaced most other power generation, with around 70% adoption, and today France is one of the world's largest energy exporters.

    France does not have radically different built environment than the rest of Europe, nor more money, nor less stringent safety requirements.

  • If all innovators were trying to fit their invention into the current infrastructure, there would not be any revolutionary leaps in technology.

    In short-term perspective, altering already build infrastructure might seem too expensive, but in a really long-term view this might not be the case. (especially if the impact on the environment is taken into account).

  • scot

    Many of the breakthrough technologies, like wind, can also work within the context of the built environment. Like coal that could supplant wood. Wind generation of electricity can supplant coal generation of electricity and take that new energy into homes via the already built electric grid.

    Similarly home based energy systems can a) develop decentralized energy in the form of electricity (solar power) that can power and heat a home, or b) develop a decentralized means of creating a burnable energy like hydrogen using a breakthrough technology like artificial photosynthesis. Any energy solution needs to take into account the built environment. With that I agree.

  • pacpost

    Excellent articulation of something I've been trying to express myself in discussions with colleagues and friends on the topic of possible energy solutions. Many in this field do indeed ignore the time that is necessary for new energy technologies to make inroads.

    To address several comments made about France, that darling of nuclear advocates in the US (rather ironic, on several levels):

    1) France has actually been a net electricity importer from Germany, to the tune of roughly 8 billion kWh over the past 3 years. While France exports its “cheap” base-load electricity during periods of low demand in neighbouring countries, it actually needs to import expensive, fossil-based peak-load electricity from countries like Germany. One reason for this is that so much of residential heating in France comes from electric heaters, which is terribly inefficient (but represents one of those built environment stumbling blocks that Gregor pointed out).

    2) France is the world's largest exporter of electricity, not energy. Big difference. Nuclear only covers 18% of France's final energy needs. So much for its claimed energy independence (plus, the last French uranium mine shut down in 2001; it now imports uranium from Canada, Australia and elsewhere). By the way, Germany, Switzerland and Canada are numbers 3 through 5 on the world electricity export list (according to the CIA). On a per capita basis, Switzerland and Canada export far more electricity. In any case, refer to point number 1 for why this doesn't help France anyway.

    3) We have no idea of the real cost of nuclear electricity in France. Areva is 90% owned by the French state, which also holds 88% of Electricite de France. It has benefited from untold billions in direct and indirect subsidies since the early 1970s, as well as benefiting from cross-financing with the French State's nuclear weapons program. There's also the legacy problem of who will cover the costs of waste management and plant decommissioning, estimated at nearly $100 billion. I'm guessing this will fall on the taxpayers, as usual…

    4) Areva is currently constructing its newest EPR reactor, with one project in Finland and the other at Flamanville. The Finish plant is 3 years behind schedule, has run into innumerable construction issues and is at least 50% over budget (estimated at $4 billion, the latest calculations are coming in at $6.3 billion). At Flamanville, France's own nuclear safety authorities shut construction down after noting that basic technical specifications and procedures such as proper concrete pouring hadn't been followed.

    So, rather than being a model for nuclear power, the reality of France's situation should serve as a cautionary tale to countries considering the expansion of nuclear power.

    In any case, yes to decentralisation, and yes to putting a price on carbon (although the politics involved in getting to that point are awfully messy).

  • johnpeteramewu

    I perfectly agree with you. The energy infrastructure needed for this massive transition is not yet in place to recieve the new form of energy. Again the transition seems to be moving from higher energy intensity to a lower energy intensity. If you consider the transition from coal to oil, You will notice that the transition was possible because we were moving from low energy intensity to a higher energy intensity. From past experiences it takes about 25 to 30 years for new form of energy to capture just about 1% of the market share. So this new energy breakthrough is just a myth now in the short run.

  • geologberg

    About one disruptive technology.
    To get sufficient amount of oil there is an innovative (disruptive) technology for oil/gas detection to significant increase of world energy potential and mitigate the economic crisis.
    With new exploration technology (patented invention US 7,330,790) we could make up to three times more oil and gas discoveries than when using conventional technology. And the fact that new technology won't need more investments is also very important. It can significantly mitigate world energy problems.
    The technology is designed and successfully tested in the Barents and the Black Seas as well as in the Gulf of Mexico (see:
    But the Big Oil Companies ignore the disruptive technology and drill 75% dry wildcats for nothing
    to support higher gasoline prices.
    Thank you for attention.
    A. Berg, Ph.D.

  • crocodile chuck


    if you're talking about uranium, forget it-there's only 30 yrs left (Australia #3 after Canada, Kazahkistan). NEXT……………………

  • FruityPimpernel

    Thanks for these insights pacpost.

  • pacpost

    Hi FP,

    I appreciate the kind comment.

    If you're interested, there's also some good research on uranium supply issues (as mentioned by another commenter, cc) to be found here: (you can download a 20-page pdf here)

  • shopa

    I have invented a way to make small cars safer in collisions. It may be a significant breakthrough
    because it would encourage more people to put their families into a small, energy efficient car.
    Too bad it is impossible to get anybody to take a serious look at it.

  • I have read many blogs and articles with different topics; your advocacy in nuclear energy is truly amazing. By some means, that energy though is really beneficial and less expensive compare to other energy being proposed, the problem fall in the politics.

  • I have read many blogs and articles with different topics; your advocacy in nuclear energy is truly amazing. By some means, that energy though is really beneficial and less expensive compare to other energy being proposed, the problem fall in the politics.

  • Similarly home based energy systems can a) develop decentralized energy in the form of electricity (solar power) that can power and heat a home, or b) develop a decentralized means of creating a burnable energy like hydrogen using a breakthrough technology like artificial photosynthesis. Any energy solution needs to take into account the built environment. With that I agree.