Putting a man on the moon happened inside a decade, but global transition to new energy technologies may take a century

Last night, President Obama promised to pursue the clean energy revolution with the same fervor America once marshaled to put a man on the moon. Unfortunately, the moonshot metaphor is the wrong way to think about energy change.

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President Barack Obama during Tuesday’s State of the Union address. Source: CNN.

The metaphor has come to mean a great mobilizing of resources to achieve a critical national objective, such as promising that an American would walk on the moon within a decade, as Kennedy did in his famous “Man on the Moon” speech in May 1961.

But the metaphor doesn’t work for energy, which is fundamentally about technology.

Today, an enormously complex set of sophisticated technologies allows us to extract fossil fuels and transform them into fuels that generate electricity and power transportation,

Over the past decade or two, a new set of energy technologies – based on wind and solar power, promising an all-electric economy – has arrived on the scene to challenge fossil fuels. The new technologies are maturing, costs are dropping, interesting ancillary technologies are being developed, and the world appears to be on the verge of a new epoch of cleaner, cheaper energy.

But, as any historian of technology will tell you, new technologies roll out over a long period of time, generally 30 to 70 years, perhaps even longer if they are particularly disruptive and transformative, and there always are bumps and bruises along the way.

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Prof. Vaclav Smil.

Turns out history isn’t a smooth, linear process.

Vaclav Smil, an eminent energy economist and Bill Gates’ favorite author, has written extensively about energy transitions. He says too many modern observers – like President Obama, perhaps – have been seduced by Moore’s Law,which predicts that the number of components on a computer microchip will double every 18 months.

Boosters think renewable energy technologies will advance at the same clip as computers and smartphones and the Internet. They are wrong, according to Smil.

“Moore’s Law means performance doubles in a year and a half. Change at the rate of energy systems means doubling efficiencies, or halving the costs, in 35 years — a vastly longer timespan,” Smil wrote in a column for American Energy News.

When the President asked during the State of the Union Address – “why would we want to pass up the chance for American businesses to produce and sell the energy of the future?” – the question was rhetorical. Of course America should be at the forefront of the energy transition, not just at home but in Asia and Latin America and other developing regions.

America should lead and it should take advantage of the business opportunities that leadership affords it.

But when Obama added, “Now we’ve got to accelerate the transition away from dirty energy,” he tread on dangerous ground. Just how quickly does he think the “transition” can be accelerated?

A decade, like the moonshot? That’s what his earlier use of the Kennedy metaphor suggests.

For good measure, the President hinted at changing “the way we manage our oil and coal resources, so that they better reflect the costs they impose on taxpayers and our planet.” Reasonable measures are fine. For instance, many American oil and gas majors have joined the carbon tax bandwagon, like their European counterparts.

But pushing too hard, too fast can cause serious problems. Getting the policy wrong can drive up costs and actually impede the process it means to facilitate. Like the Canadian province of Ontario, whose Green Energy Act has contributed to billions of wasted taxpayers’ dollars and needlessly high power rates.

The President needs to find another metaphor, one that more accurately reflects the process of technology change and the pace at which energy systems transform. Moore’s Law, as Prof. Smil demonstrates, would be a poor choice.

But the moonshot is even worse.