Black swans are hard to hunt

The Wall Street Journal‘s energy-roundup blog (essentially a clipping service for news about the energy business) is evolving into a fuller-service source for news about green capitalism, called “Environmental Capital.” Longer posts, more analysis, all that good stuff.

I’m struck by this piece on the failures of “moon-shot” work funded by the U.S. Department of Energy, vastly expensive efforts to design The Clean Automobile or The Non-Polluting Coal Plant.

In 2001, the DOE axed the Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles, a government program that had been hatched with much fanfare nearly a decade earlier to help Detroit auto makers build an 80-mile-per-gallon “supercar.” The program drew loud praise from politicians such as Al Gore. But the government cancelled the partnership after having spent $1.5 billion on it.

“We do not want a car that succeeds in the laboratory and fails in the market,” the then energy secretary, Spencer Abraham, said at the 2002 annual auto show in Detroit. For all the federal largess, Motown’s auto makers hadn’t gotten a production hybrid car into showrooms. Meanwhile, Japan’s Toyota Motor Corp., which wasn’t allowed into the DOE program, already had its Prius hybrid on sale. The DOE launched a new program, dubbed Freedom Car, intended to spur a U.S. infrastructure for hydrogen-powered fuel-cell cars.

The WSJ writers conclude that magical solutions to complex problems are pretty hard to come by. Not that they don’t ever work — the history of technology is punctuated with game-changing innovations that solve a lot of long-standing problems (consider how pleased blubbery whales must have been when we figured out how to get oil out of the ground. They do happen. But they’re not the way to bet.

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