I think most of us agree that LA without smog or no pollutants into the ocean or atmosphere would be a very good thing. This being said there are a number of challenges that need to be overcome to realize a greener future.
Rather then address all the challenges at once I would like to break the challenges down into a few articles the first one of these being technical and the related ROI problem.
The greatest challenge with any new technology is that to perfect it one has to have sufficient usage. Now of course this gets into the problem of people or corporations not wanting to use a new technology before it has a good ROI, yet to get a good ROI requires usage – chicken and egg.
One can certainly do a ton of R&D and testing in a lab, but nothing takes the place of mass usage as with mass usage one discovers all sorts of bugs and technical problems that may not have ever been thought of by the scientists.
Outside of usage a lot of time and investment is required. Alternatives to gas based combustion engines and things like solar or other clean electricity generation technologies are evolving slowly due to technical, time and financial issues.
It’s worth looking at the challenges faced by the combustion engine in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
The Advent of the Petroleum Based Combustion Engine
There were many different approaches to self propelled vehicles dating back to the 18th century. Some even credit Newton and da Vinci for being the first to come up with theoretical ideas as to realizing such.
Many credit Daimler and Maybach as the inventors that put the internal combustion engine on the map, but it was not until Henry Ford introduced the assembly line 1908-13 that mass manufacturing and mainstream adoption began to occur in conjunction with other problems having been solved.
Rather than discuss history it’s interesting to note that it easily took 30-40 years for the combustion engine to gain real traction.
So what were the challenges – cost, reliability, roads, gas stations, refining, tires, etc.
This new technology took off due to innovation, time and money rather than by putting a high tax on horse feed or buggy manufacturers.
Alt Energy – Electric Vehicles, Solar and Other
Electric vehicles today face many of the technical/cost challenges faced by combustion engines in the past.
Heat and A/C drains the battery, the charge doesn’t last long enough, too expensive, too many bugs, batteries wear out = need to replace them, very few places to recharge, mass usage strains the grid, etc.
All of these problems and ones not yet seen will need to be remedied before electric vehicles see mass adoption. In this time the combustion engine will become more efficient and pollute less and other alternative car tech may also appear on the market.
If one looks at utility scale solar the investment required is very large as a concentrated solar thermal plant can easily cost $1 billion. Furthermore, like the competitive challenges faced by electric vehicles, one is competing against entrenched technologies that work very reliably even if not clean. All sorts of issues need to be addressed as well such as smarter grid, improving yields, lessening transmission loss, etc.
The value of electricity generation infrastructure is immense and therefore will take a very long time to replace.
A lot of green technology has been developed and is in use in commercial real estate – smart lighting/HVAC, better insulation, etc. The reason why it is in use is that the buyer can see the ROI on the purchase quickly via a lower electric bill.
If you want to go green you have to get the ROI right and when done adoption will occur very quickly. This will successfully happen via innovation, time, investment, R&D and navigating politics/entrenched interests something I will discuss in another article.
As a side note the same thing applies to all very new technology. The personal computer took 20-25 years to go mainstream and this was and is a much lower ticket item than a car or power plant.