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Innovation and Dinosaurs

This recent article in the Guardian about the lack of energy innovation in the US by George Monbiot is sure to raise more than a few hackles…

As if to hammer home the point that the Department of Energy seems to be stuck in a time-warp, and as if to highlight the sad decline of technological innovation in the US, Chu finished his talk with a disquisition on the beauty of the earth as seen by the Apollo astronauts.

What has happened to the great pioneering nation, the economic superpower which once drove innovation everywhere? How did it end up so far behind much smaller economies in boring old Europe? How come, when the rest of the developed world has moved on, it suddenly looks like a relic of the Soviet Union, with filthy, inefficient industries, vast opencast coal mines and cars and appliances which belong in the 1950s?

Source: US left behind in technological race to fight climate change

The Soviet Way

This reminds me of the fact that until a few years ago, solar water heaters did not have the blessing of the Canadian Standards Association (CSA), which prompted the City of Ottawa to refrain from permitting the installation of this equipment – a valid response when permitting the installation goes against the usual practice of requiring all products to meet CSA standards. Technologies that have been commonplace in almost every other part of the world have been shunned until recently here in North America. Off the top of my head…

  • Low Flush toilets 
  • Roundabouts
  • Fuel efficient vehicles
  • Greywater reuse
  • Rainwater tanks
  • Solar Hot Water
  • Passive Solar Design
  • Permeable pavements

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These are examples where North American regulations have deemed that the fully engineered solution and technology driven somehow better serves the population at large. As a result, freedom in the corporate marketplace has led to sloppy technology iterations with regard to conservation and energy saving processes.

Innovation in energy demand only comes when definable shortages exist or real cost savings can be attributed to the effort required to gain those savings in energy. Jevon's paradox [paraphrased] states that without defined shortages, any improvements in energy efficiency are quickly taken by increased consumer demand across other uses.

Now that the possibility of shortages are likely to be realized across all sectors, innovation is spreading to these previously untouched sectors of the American market, playing catchup to the rest of the world in many cases – for everyone's sake, we should hope that the efforts leapfrog over existing international standards and set high quality levels of efficiency and operational systems.

Mike Thomas

Mike Thomas P.Eng. ENV SP, is the author of UrbanWorkbench.com and Director of Engineering at the City of Revelstoke in the Interior of British Columbia, Canada. If I post something here that you find helpful as you navigate the world of engineering, planning and building communities, that’s wonderful. But when push comes to shove: This is my personal blog. The views expressed on these pages are mine alone and not those of my employer.