We can ramp up on deployment of clean energy systems and then apply what we learn to make the whole system better.

Energy Blog: Build First, Explain Second

May 10, 2021

by Michael E. Webber

When Martin Eberhard and Marc Tarpenning—men with backgrounds in electronics and software—announced in 2003 that they were starting a company to make electric vehicles, it was easy to dismiss them. After all, neither was an automobile researcher or had worked for carmakers. Instead, it seemed that Eberhard and Tarpenning wanted to make cars first, and then learn how to make them later.

In the modern global economy, we have this organized and elegant vision of how innovation and commercialization unfolds: It goes from science to engineering to manufacturing to market. It starts with scientists who propose new theories that are then experimentally verified. These tests lead to ideas for applied scientists to demonstrate after which engineers improve the concepts until a company manufactures the widget for the benefit of humanity.

For the present energy transition away from carbon fuels, this whole process from fundamental science to lab to pilot to scale is too slow because it can easily require several decades. It needs to start immediately.

Fortunately, there is another way.

In fact, in the industrial revolution innovators went the other way around: They built steam engines and then afterward the underlying scientific principles of thermodynamics were developed to explain how the machines worked.

More from Michael E. Webber: Trading One Crisis For Another

Inventors such as Savery, Newcomen, or Watt knew that higher pressures and temperatures could achieve higher power output and that tighter boiler designs would reach higher efficiency, but they did not know why that was the case. As historian Bruce Hunt wrote in his book, Pursuing Power and Light, ”Historians of science and technology have often and quite rightly observed that the steam engine did far more for science than science ever did for the steam engine.“

Despite the initial lack of accurate theories and scientific applications, these machines transformed the world and facilitated a lot of follow-on innovation in a short period of time.

Perhaps it’s time for us to go backward again. Instead of developing new theories about how to decarbonize society in the most elegant forward-looking way, let’s get in the field and just start building low-carbon solutions and then go backward to figure out which ones worked and why.

It takes too long to follow the normal process, so we need to switch the order to accelerate things. Build first, explain second.

The looming, multitrillion dollar infrastructure bill is an opportunity to put this idea to practice. Many people use the lack of perfect science on climate change, ocean acidification, geoengineering, and other fields as an excuse for delay anyway, so we might as well get going.

Looking back over recent history there’s reason to be confident this approach would work. After all, the costs for wind, solar, and batteries did not drop swiftly over the past decade or two because our theories improved; their costs dropped because we installed a lot of them and the supply chains improved and economics of scale were reached.

Editor's Choice: Energy Blog: Our Energy and Climate Policies are Counterproductive

Research is still important—we need it to identify new battery chemistries that are less prone to thermal runaway and comprised of solid-state materials that are stable and abundant, to reduce degradation of solar panels, to fine-tune wind turbine performance through a range of conditions, and to develop carbon capture or nuclear designs that overcome their cost burdens and safety risks. This research should continue, but let’s not use our slow learning process to delay urgent action.

We could emulate Eberhard and Tarpenning, who together with Elon Musk turned Tesla into the company that is setting the future direction for much of the automotive industry. Let’s ramp up on deployment as fast as we can, and then apply what we learn to make the whole system better. We just might surprise ourselves with how quickly we can install solutions. Along the way we’ll employ a lot of people, overcoming fears that decarbonization will be bad for the economy. It’s possible that going backward will be the fastest way forward. 
Michael E. Webber is the Josey Centennial Professor of Energy Resources at the University of Texas in Austin and chief science and technology officer at ENGIE, a global energy company headquartered in Paris. His most recent book, From Athletics to Engineering: 8 Ways to Support Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion for All, was co-written with Johnnie Johnson.

You are now leaving ASME.org