Are you a genius inventor or a crackpot?

The clean energy space seems to act like a magnet to crackpots with miracle cures of questionable scientific integrity. Yet this hasn't stopped GE, who through their Ecomagination Challenge, are calling for ideas from all and sundry about how we might solve the carbon emissions challenge. I hope they like long phone calls.

As you may have noticed from reading the website, GE are currently advertising in Climate Spectator about a competition in Australia and New Zealand to identify breakthrough ideas for reducing carbon emissions. They’ve already got 36 ideas proposed, and no doubt many more will come in.

I’ve got to say I don’t envy GE and the judges who will have to sort through all these ideas. Trying to sort through fact and fiction in this field of energy innovation can be difficult and incredibly time consuming. Finding new, dramatic, and cost-effective improvements in how we source and use energy isn’t easy. If it was we’d have already introduced dramatic changes in our power system, but it has proven itself to be incredibly resistant to change.  

Not that there’s an absence of people trying to convince you that they’ve discovered the amazing answer to clean-up our emissions that will be incredibly cheap. Although they’ve always got one catch – it requires just a few million dollars now based on an assurance the payoffs will flood in later.

Many years ago when I was a public servant working in the sustainable transport division of the Australian Greenhouse Office (now the Department of Climate Change and Energy Efficiency) I remember having to regularly field phone calls and letters from people claiming to have invented a breakthrough technology for reducing motor vehicle CO2 emissions. 

These included: special “catalyst” fuel additives (the Firepower pill being a prominent example of these fraudulent products); magnets placed on various parts of the engine; altered piston and engine block designs; and my favourite - the addition of black boxes to the engine, such as Peter Brock’s Energy Polariser, that usually involved a secret mixture of ingredients such as crystals, magnets and metals that miraculously transformed petrol’s combustion behaviour.

There was even a guy who, repeatedly rebuffed by vehicle manufacturers, and on his deathbed, sent through detailed blueprints of his engine design to the Minister asking as his final dying wish that the government fund it’s mass production.

As an almost universal rule these callers and letter writers lacked any experience or qualifications in motor vehicle manufacture or engine design, other than perhaps being a motor mechanic.

One phone call I remember almost as clearly as if it was yesterday was along the following lines:

Inventor: I have invented a breakthrough technology that will dramatically reduce a car’s fuel consumption and CO2 emissions. I would like government funding to support my company to develop this invention.

Me: I’m really sorry but the government doesn’t actually have any program in place that specifically funds companies to develop fuel saving technologies, although there is a program to support conversion of heavy vehicles to alternative fuels and there are tax breaks for production of some alternative fuels. Does your invention involve an alternative fuel? [incidentally the support of these alternative fuels were an example where politicians were fooled by amateur engine tinkerers and farming interests about claims of large CO2 savings unsupported by any empirical evidence].

Inventor: No it doesn’t involve alternative fuels, but you guys are in the business of reducing CO2 emissions aren’t you, so surely you’d be interested in supporting my technology? You advise the minister on this stuff don’t you?

Me: Look I understand where you’re coming from. At present there isn’t a program in place but things might change in the future. Could you fill me in on the nature of your fuel saving technology so I can take this into account in any future advice?

Inventor: No, it’s a secret.

Me: I’m sorry but I can’t really help you out or provide advice to the minister on it if I don’t have any idea about the technology. Could you give me at least some kind of general idea of how your technology might reduce emissions?

Inventor: But you might steal it.

[At this point I begin to see the potential for amusement]

Me: I might need some hints though if you want government to give you money. You’ve said it doesn’t involve any alternative fuel or alteration to fuels - correct?

Inventor: Yes

Me: So does it involve some changes to the engine?

Inventor: No

Me: Does it reduce friction in the drive-train or wheels?

Inventor: No

Me: Is it some kind of light-weighting of the vehicle?

Inventor: No

Me: Is it aahhhh... device that enables some kind of recovery of wasted energy such as during braking?

Inventor: No

Me: electrification?

Inventor: No

Me: Okaaaaay, you tell me you’ve got a technology that dramatically reduces the fuel consumption of motor vehicles but it doesn’t involve modifications to the engine, the fuel, the weight of the car, the moving parts or any kind of electrification or energy recovery.

I’m now pretty much out of ideas. Does it involve walking?

These are the joys of dealing with inventors in the field of energy, although I have to say motor vehicles seem to be particularly heavily populated with misguided but well-intentioned tinkerers. 

Yet amongst the gunk there will be some gems hiding - great ideas that no one else has managed to dream up, or perhaps weren’t able to properly pursue because of lack of time, lack of funding, lack of the right support or even lack of confidence. 

GE, through their Ecomagination challenge are hoping they might uncover some of those latent gems that need a bit of a push along to become a reality. GE has run these kind of competitions across the globe with past competitions focussed on large scale power and smart grid technologies, and residential home energy management, efficiency and generation. 

The winners from the Powering the Grid competition were a lightweight inflatable wind turbine; a technology that instantly de-ices wind turbine blades so they never slow or shut down; an intelligent water meter that can generate its own power; a cyber-secure network infrastructure that allows two-way communications grid monitoring and substation automation from wind and solar farms; and a technology solves short-circuiting and outages from overloaded electric grids by enabling precise control over their flow and power.

In terms of the Powering the Home competition the winners were an air conditioning control system to regulate cooling depending on occupant behaviour, a business model for rolling-out off-grid stand-alone renewable power for developing countries, software that would analyse household energy usage data to provide customised energy saving suggestions, an electrochemical compressor and heat-pump system to provide cooling with 60 per cent less energy, and a high insulating window integrated with solar PV cells.

Each of these ideas in isolation won’t solve the climate change problem and steal newspaper headlines. But I suspect it’s these little breakthroughs steadily accumulating, rather than one single big bang that will ultimately deliver us a completely emission free power supply that is also reliable and affordable. 

So don’t be like that wacky inventor that called me many years ago with his secret solution to vehicle emissions, if you’ve got a good idea for reducing emissions please let others know about it.

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