Why clean technology disappoints then defies expectations
About 17 years ago, I took a job establishing and running the Clean Environment Management Centre (CLEMANCE) at the University of Teesside. At the time, the Uni was known for one thing above all else – Virtual Reality. Our building was called the Virtual Reality and Technology Centre – every other engineering and science discipline was crammed in under the afterthought. And then, suddenly, it was decided that VR had no future and the VR Centre was unceremoniously shut.
I mused on this when my sister presented the boys with a Google Cardboard for Christmas. Just a decade after the VR Centre closed and a piece of cardboard with a couple of lenses in it, costing less than a fiver, is giving us VR in our living room. Of course you have to add in the critical element yourself – a (my!) smartphone. And that’s probably where the VR centre went wrong – it closed a few years before the smartphone revolution changed the way we interacted with technology for ever. You could accuse those decision makers of being short-sighted, but the extent of that supposedly-unrelated revolution was extremely hard to anticipate.
When you look at clean technology trends they follow a similar trend – individual ideas will appear, get hyped and then disappear. And then, suddenly, we get something like the current renewable energy boom, far exceeding all predictions. The traditional way of explaining this is the hype cycle (see below), but to me this is over-simplistic.
I believe such breakthroughs occur as much by the convergence of technologies as by the maturity of individual technologies. If we go back to the smartphone, all the component technologies: mobile telecommunication, data transmission, the internet (in the form of bulletin boards etc), GUIs and even touch screens were all bimbling along in the 1980s but it took until 2007 for a certain Mr Jobs to conceive the smartphone as we know it. But I doubt that even Jobs would have foreseen, say, the addition of a piece of cardboard bringing VR to the masses. Predicting the future is a mugs game.
We’re starting to get to the stage where the Energy 2.0 revolution could go really huge. At the minute we still have a centralised energy system (1.0) slowly morphing into a distributed one. You can see the other elements starting to fall into place – smart(er) grids, electric cars (with their batteries for storage), the Internet of Things, variable energy pricing and the ubiquity of smartphones as a potential interface/control system. That vision of sitting in front of the TV getting an alert on your phone that you could sell some of your solar-generated, EV-stored energy at a premium price if you tap OK right now could soon be with us. Or it could be something completely different, who knows?