Looking where it is easier to see
Wednesday, October 24, 2007 at 09:50AM
Toby Considine in Background

An old joke tells of a man looking for a small lost object of some value, let’s say a pocket watch. A friend comes by, sees him searching in a barnyard, and decides to help. For an hour they search high and low, but with no success. The friend asks the man exactly where he last saw the watch. “I dropped it in the hay in the barn”. The friend, somewhat agitated, asks then why they have been wasting their time looking out in the yard. The man replies, as if stating the obvious, “It will be easier to see it out here where the light is better.”

For power distribution and management, all the light is shining on the traditional organizations and business models of the power companies. They have the big systems in place. We understand how they are organized. They have familiar models for bringing the one solution into the home. They are also economic rent-seekers committed to existing business models, and these business models do not reward new distributed technologies.

For energy storage, we all know the usual suspects. Lithium batteries. Hydrogen in the sweet by-and-by. Peter Drucker wrote that a new technology must be ten times as good as the old to overcome market position, manufacturing learning curve, and incremental improvements. This makes it hard to bet against solutions that might come from incremental improvements on existing technologies, such as the Firefly lead batteries.

There will not be one big solution, and a few select teams will not solve all problems. Some technologies will come from people working to solve the problems of small niches, in scenarios that do not appear to work for everyone. To anyone looking only at the national or global level, these technologies will appear too flawed or limited for general use. These solutions will never come out of big government energy initiatives. By carefully tending to the special needs of the small sites of early adopters, some of these technologies will suddenly be found to be able to scale.

We need to let a thousand flowers bloom. Open markets provide clear information in ways that regulated industries do not. Innovations will follow information to find problems; one of those problems will be just the manure needed for an unexpected solution to grow strong.

The problems of local energy storage, of site generation, and of efficient demand response will be solved by domain experts, people who have studied harder than most. They will be solved by kooks working in niche markets. They will be solved by end users who are just have their own problem to solve. They will find novel solutions that will appear obvious, once they have developed their solution.

In all likelihood, they will not be looking where “the light is better”.

Article originally appeared on New Daedalus (http://www.newdaedalus.com/).
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