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Mithril, according to reports, is looking to back unorthodox innovators with breakthrough potential. Evidently, despite the general malaise, Thiel believes such opportunities exist. Perhaps, as an old saw suggests, disaster is another name for opportunity. Of course, this picture may be a bit misleading. Energy sales are more than 8% of US GDP, over a trillion dollars a year. So even the small percentage allocated to R&D still comes to several billion dollars. Energy innovation accounts for a relatively small share of federal R&D budgets too. But the total amount spent on energy R&D by industry and government together is on the order of about $10 billion a year. Too little, arguably, but not exactly chicken feed. The basic problem is that investments in energy R&D do not necessarily result in useful, economically viable innovations. A big part of that problem is that the overall system that converts raw energy inputs into useful results is immensely complex, with a number of big, interdependent subsystems. In that kind of messy system of systems, it’s hard to change a single component without imposing potentially disruptive strains on other elements.

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Because introducing innovations into big integrated systems tends to be costly, it’s difficult for private companies, even giants, to capture significant returns on R&D investments — especially the ones that would tend to be disruptive. So the big players tend to focus their R&D on things that are at least compatible with the existing systems, and especially on things that can enhance the productivity and profitability of conventional resources, operations, markets, etc. The petroleum and natural gas industries actually have developed and adopted advanced exploration, production, and distribution technologies that have impressively expanded the capabilities of those industries to efficiently produce and deliver the fossil fuel products that the world mostly wants and largely depends on. So-called ‘fracking’ and horizontal drilling technology has so effectively expanded US domestic natural gas and oil supplies from ‘unconventional’ resources like shales that the country is on course in a few years to become not only energy independent but a net energy exporter. Similar innovations have enabled oil and gas resources to be discovered and exploited deep undersea and in arctic conditions. A corollary to what may seem like the “too big to fail” nature of vast integrated energy systems is that innovations in these systems generally require very big, durable capital investments. Once installed, these often are expected to last for decades. Big capital requirements and durable sunk costs naturally tend to slow the pace of innovation.

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