ISO: Breakthrough Business Plans and New Performance Standards

Some call for an Apollo Program for energy. Others, such as Senator Lamar Alexander, a Manhattan Project. I sent a letter to the Forum section of Issues in Science and Technology commenting on an article he wrote about his big idea. Check out the current issue which includes my letter, pasted below:

Senator Lamar Alexander’s “A New Manhattan Project” (Issues, Summer 2008) is inspiring in its scope and scale, and I commend him for his commitment and focus on the big picture vis-à-vis energy policy. Although I disagree with some of his comments on electricity generation, I write as a transportation expert who thinks that the puzzle is missing some pieces.

First, there must be a greater focus on the deployment of new technology. Three of the seven components of the plan—plug-in hybrid commercialization and making solar power as well as biofuel alternatives cost-competitive—are reliant only in part on technological breakthroughs. Equally important, if not more so, are smart deployment strategies. We must work with entrepreneurs to develop revolutionary business models that will rapidly transform our vehicle fleets.

One initiative that aims to spur such innovation is the Freedom Prize ( I am excited to be an adviser to this new organization, which will distribute monetary prizes to cutting-edge transformational initiatives in industry, schools, government, the military, and communities. An example of a revolutionary model is Project Better Place, launched by Israeli entrepreneur Shai Agassi. I recently had the pleasure of hearing him talk firsthand about his big idea, which Thomas L. Friedman described in a recent column in the New York Times (July 27, 2008):

“Agassi’s plan, backed by Israel’s government, is to create a complete electric car ‘system’ that will work much like a mobile-phone service ‘system,’ only customers sign up for so many monthly miles, instead of minutes. Every subscriber will get a car, a battery and access to a national network of recharging outlets all across Israel—as well as garages that will swap your dead battery for a fresh one whenever needed.”

Time will tell if it will work, in Israel or elsewhere. Regardless, it is exactly the kind of thinking we need. Technological breakthroughs are necessary but insufficient; they must be complemented by expedited deployment strategies.

The truly indispensable complements to crash research programs and big carrots for innovation are technology-neutral performance standards and mandatory programs to limit global-warming pollution. Such policy was debated by the U.S. Senate this year: the Boxer-Lieberman-Warner Climate Security Act (CSA).

An analysis commissioned by the Natural Resources Defense Council shows that the CSA would have dramatically cut pollution while slashing oil imports by 6.4 million barrels a day in 2025 (down to 1986 levels). This is in part due to Senator Alexander’s success in adding a national low-carbon fuel standard to the bill, which would lower the carbon intensity of fuels, making alternatives such as plug-in hybrids and advanced biofuels more competitive. That’s the kind of policy that would move us forward, and fast.

In sum, building the bridge to a low-carbon secure future requires an array of carrot and stick programs that expedite technological development and deployment. I look forward to working with Senator Alexander to speed us into that better world.