The Case for Incrementalism

By Tim Portz
I grow increasingly troubled by the trend of public sentiment that any and all clean energy developments must get it 100 percent right the first time. It also seems that any clean energy opportunity that experiences growing pains becomes the target of immense criticism, doubt and abandonment. Furthermore, many clean energy systems that are connected to a legacy fossil-fuel-based technology are sometimes painted with the same brush as the fossil fuel technology they seek to improve upon. For example, the planned coal plant with the biomass requirement in Iowa, which I mentioned in last months column. The project has been scuttled, stalling the development of a biomass infrastructure within the state.

Corn-based ethanol has been the victim of a steady and unrelenting assault by a number of interests including the environmental lobby, the food industry and Big Oil. I believe that much of the doubt and negative press surrounding the ethanol industry is connected to our inability to come to terms with the incremental nature of the journey of change we are on; in this instance the evolution of a biomass-based liquid fuels infrastructure. The biofuels of today are an improvement upon the biofuels of yesterday, but pale in comparison to the efficiency, sustainability and promise of the biofuels of tomorrow.

I was seven years old when my parents bought me my first computer. It was a Commodore VIC 20 and had 5 kilobytes of installed memory. Internal hard drives, e-mail, and the Internet were barely being imagined at that time. Still, the VIC 20 was wildly popular and was the first personal computer to sell more than 1 million units, according to Wikipedia.

Now, of course, I'm able to research the VIC 20 and learn that it was the first personal computer to sell 1 million units while driving down the road using a wireless, handheld computer. Have we forgotten the steady incremental journey we experienced with personal computing? Or, is the current pace of progress with personal computing-seemingly warp speed-responsible for our more widely applied expectations-especially to clean energy-for rapid change? Our collective memory is short and we struggle to remember the first laptop, much less a clunky suitcase-sized computer with barely one e-mail's worth of memory.

Whatever the reason for our impatience, we should be mindful that while we would all welcome an instantaneous and abrupt shift in the creation of our much-needed energy, we are more likely in for an arduous journey full of obstacles, some that we can anticipate and plenty that we can't.

Tim Portz is a business developer with BBI International's Community Initiative to Improve Energy Sustainability. Reach him at [email protected] or (651) 398-9154.