Are Environmentalists Too Focused on Innovation?

Video screen capture. Solar Roadways

When yet another post about Solar Roadways went viral the other day, I did include a word of warning—linking to an article that claimed the whole concept is more than a bit silly.

Others have been weighing in along very similar lines.

Tor Valenza over at Renewable Energy World used Solar Roadways as a reminder to the rest of the solar energy industry that it has failed to adequately capture the public imagination:

Because our traditional solar PV is everywhere in the world, and it “freakin’” already works! It's “freakin’” powering homes, businesses, satellites, and utilities cost-effectively on ordinary everyday rooftops and land, and it’s been proven to last 25 to 30 years or longer! In fact, as of the end of 2013, we’ve “freakin’” installed 136,697 MW, and that’s no “freakin’” demonstration project outside a garage!...And yet 15 million people have never watched or shared a video made by traditional solar installers or solar manufacturers. In fact, most Americans still think solar is too expensive and that the technology still needs to be improved before considering it for their home or business.

Meanwhile, Craig Morris over at Renewables International went a step further, arguing that a Solar Roadways must be stopped. He suggests that the obsession with breakthroughs and innovation (remember Solyndra?) is holding us back, and slams the fan-made Solar Roadways video as being particularly unhelpful:

Here’s the part that that is worth fighting against the most. Admittedly, the popular video for the idea was not made by the company, but by some fans. Still, it shows a solar roof and speaks of “lifeless, boring solar panels” and adds, “This isn’t about filling a field with solar panels, wasting land.” Great, so once again we have entrepreneurs telling the public and politicians not to start building what we have, but to wait for some future breakthrough.

I do have some sympathy with Morris' thesis. Even though innovation—from falling solar costs to improvements in battery technology—will play a key role in improving our clean tech outlook, we must also never forget that we already have much, if not all, of what we need to slash carbon emissions and build a better world.

In the same way as Lloyd has reminded us that smart homes can be a distraction from simply building better buildings, or that electric cars may prevent us from fixing our cities, the problem is not necessarily new technology itself. Rather, it's the human (and green media) tendency to pay attention to the shiny, the new and the novel, while ignoring and/or failing to adequately support the mundane, the established and the effective.

Nobody is arguing that we should put a stop to innovation. It is worth remembering, however, that each time we hear about a new breakthrough, we should ask ourselves what established tools might do the same job. And each time we are asked to shell out hard cash to support a new idea, it's worth also thinking about what else could be done with that same money.

There's nothing wrong with trying to reinvent the wheel.

But we shouldn't stop ourselves from riding our bikes while we are waiting for that to happen.