Innovation will save the world (Really)

Our only limit should be what we think the opportunities might be tomorrow, not what they are today.

As governments and organizations redouble their efforts to combat global warming and climate change, these have become critical times to recognize the impact of the human race on our planet’s environment and to salute the efforts of those who are developing cleaner technology and more sustainable practices that can help restore the quality of our land, air and water.

It is perhaps not the time for arguments like those in a recent Wall Street Journal essay titled, “Fossil Fuels Will Save the World (Really).”

In this piece, the contributing author, an accomplished journalist and member of the British House of Lords, hails the positive impacts of coal and gas fuels on society while professing that renewable energy sources have not contributed to any drop in carbon emissions. Among his arguments: Solar power is rarely competitive with fossil fuel because of the capital needed to capture and deliver it.

The author concludes the case for renewables is flawed because they require too much space and produce too little power. He notes the globe-circling flight of the totally sun-powered Solar Impulse 2, saying, “Despite its huge wingspan…, slow speed and frequent stops, the only cargo it can carry is the pilots themselves. This is a good metaphor for the limitations of renewables.”

What the author ignores, to the fatal peril of his argument, is the role of innovation.

The development of renewables is still in its childhood, if not its infancy. How much did computers contribute to our lives in 1969? Their impact on everyday consumers was nil. In fact, the year when the first astronauts were landing on the moon, the entirety of U.S. space agency NASA employed less computing power than we carry in our pockets today. If the computer industry had never innovated, our cell phones would be as big as houses. Our calculators would be as big as cars.

The author’s argument might compare to discounting the efforts of the Wright Brother’s efforts as a mere farce that had a negligible impact on the transportation industry from 1903 to 1907.

Obviously, such reasoning neglects to anticipate the innovation in aviation that followed, taking us from fabric-covered biplanes on a beach at Kitty Hawk, N.C., to modern airplanes that can carry hundreds of passengers, fly at speeds three times that of sound, or – as pioneering aviators like André Borschberg and Bertrand Piccard are doing with Solar Impulse – circumnavigating the globe powered by nothing more than energy from the sun.

The goal of Solar Impulse, an endeavor with which ABB has formed an innovation and technology alliance, is not to change the aviation industry and it is not meant to be a solar-powered cargo carrier.

But given the scientific world’s record of remarkable innovation, this plane’s round-the-world flight may one day inspire the development of a full-size aircraft fueled by photons. If photovoltaic innovation were to follow half the rate of microprocessor innovation, it would take just a decade before a solar airplane will be carrying 10 people.

Our only limit should be what we think the opportunities might be tomorrow, not what they are today.

Let’s continue to be awed by the vision of André Borschberg, Bertrand Piccard and the Solar Impulse team! It is pioneers like these whose innovations stand a good chance of saving the world. (Really)


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About the author

Ciaran Flanagan

I'm Head of Data Center Business Development at ABB globally, tasked with consolidating ABB as a key player in the datacenter industry. Prior to ABB I was Head of Datacenter Strategy at Nokia & previously held Consulting and Technology leadership roles at Verari Systems and Intel Corporation. I was a Founding Contributor to the EU Datacenter Code of Conduct and a Contributing Member of The Green Grid and the Open Datacenter Alliance. I also served as a Judge for Uptime Institute's Green Enterprise IT Awards in 2012. From a professional perspective I'm very interested in energy politics and how it will affect the datacenter industry but also how ABB can help this industry find more effective and efficient ways to manage energy consumption.
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