Cleantech Market Intelligence
Why Getting to the Moon was Easier than Shifting the Energy Paradigm
It is time to retire the “moonshot” analogy. This is one of the most popular analogies used by politicians and clean energy advocates, so you’ve probably heard it before. The argument goes: “If the U.S. just applies the same commitment, funding, and determination that enabled us to reach the moon just 8 years after President Kennedy launched the Apollo program, we can certainly … put 1 million EVs on the road by 2015, create the hydrogen economy, or achieve energy independence.” Presidents, environmental groups, technology advocates, and startups have all used this comparison to suggest that we should be able to achieve the clean energy transformation if we just have the will, and the dollars, to do it.
But what all these references to the Apollo program really do is highlight the unpleasant reality that changing energy markets is much, much harder than getting to the moon. Getting to the moon was largely a technological challenge, not a societal one. It required getting people to work together to develop the technology and to manage the missions, as well as securing ongoing support from Congress and the American people. It didn’t, however, involve changing the everyday habits of millions of Americans or changing millions of decisions made independently through the free market. The Apollo program also was not exactly price-sensitive, whereas the auto market, for example, most definitely is. So, while the government can speed the rate of clean car technology development with massive investments, the technologies still have to meet very demanding price targets and be amenable to mass production and use by non-technical experts (i.e. the driving public).
We actually have a rather nice test case that demonstrates this difference. One man has tried both to get to the moon – or at least into outer space – and to re-make the U.S. automotive sector. That would be Elon Musk. Let’s recap his progress so far:
Tesla: Founded in 2003, sales of EVs probably under 5,000 as of mid-2012.
This is not to suggest Tesla is a failure. As my Smart Transportation colleagues have noted, Tesla can be largely credited for re-igniting interest in EVs in the United States with the high-performance Roadster. The company has continued to set very high standards with its Model S, but sales have been slow to date, due in part to the price tag – a base price of over $55,000.
The problem with the Apollo analogy is that helps drive the boom-and-bust cycle of technology development. Politicians start talking about moonshots and the next thing they do is make unrealistic projections about how quickly we can meet clean technology goals. When the lofty goals aren’t met, people grow disillusioned and start looking to the next great solution. Even Elon Musk, who says that EVs will someday make up half of auto production, thinks it will take 20 years to get there. We’ve seen real progress in the development of clean technology over the past 10 years, and it shouldn’t be counted as a failure if we haven’t yet reached the moon.