Energy Secretary: Drop IP Protection To Promote Greentech?

by Brian Fletcher on March 30, 2009

Interesting (and some may say ominous) story in the NY Times Dot Earth blog last week. 

At the end of a tour of the Brookhaven National Laboratory, Steven Chu, the Secretary of Energy and a Nobel laureate in physics, met with reporters to discuss the Obama administration’s goals for promoting energy innovation.  He was asked, among other things, whether there should be more international collaboration on some facets of energy research — an arena in which, outside of nuclear fusion, countries tend to go it alone.  Some energy experts say that a lack of intellectual-property protection in China is a big impediment to advancing and disseminating designs for less-polluting power plants and the like.

But Dr. Chu proposed that dropping intellectual property protection might actually be the way to go on some technologies.

Before being named energy secretary, Steven Chu led a panel assessing how the United States and China could cooperate on climate and energy. “There’s no reason why it has to be compartmentalized,” Dr. Chu said of efforts to improve energy technology and efficiency.  He said this was particularly true for technologies like systems for capturing and storing carbon dioxide from power plants.

“Since power plants are built in the home country, most of the investments are in the home country,” he said. “You don’t build a power plant, put it in a boat and ship it overseas, similar to with buildings.  So developing technologies for much more efficient buildings is something that can be shared in each country.  If countries actively helped each other, they would also reap the home benefits of using less energy.  So any area like that I think is where we should work very hard in a very collaborative way — by very collaborative I mean share all intellectual property as much as possibleAnd in my meetings with my counterparts in other countries, when we talk about this they say, yes, we really should do this.  But there hasn’t been a coordinated effort.  And so it’s like all countries becoming allies against this common foe, which is the energy problem.”

Some business leaders working at the intersection of science, engineering, commerce and the environment expressed skepticism about letting ideas flow unprotected (keep in mind that Dr. Chu presumably is most likely talking mainly about ideas generated directly through federal programs).

Asked about the idea of sharing clean technologies openly with other countries in a Green Inc. interview last week, Steve Fludder, the head of the green “Ecomagination” division of General Electric, aggressively refuted the idea.

Ecomagination plans to invest $1.5 billion next year in research and development, and Mr. Fludder is not about to give away any secrets. “Why would we invest $1.5 billion a year in innovation that just slips through your fingers?” he said. “I mean, why would anybody invest in anything that they would have to just give away?”

Mr. Fludder said that he and others at G.E. “totally support the notion that the technology needs to get to where it should get to” — for example, making sure solar panels are installed in sunny parts of the world — but that there is a different way to accomplish that. He noted, for example, that G.E. already has a wind-turbine manufacturing plant in China that is employing locals and competing directly with other Chinese manufacturers.

He said the focus should be more on “what are we trying to accomplish, as opposed to jumping to let’s make I.P. open as the answer. To me, that’s the potential means to what end?”

“Stifling investments in innovation is going to basically work against the very goal that everyone is trying to achieve,” he added.

The United States Chamber of Commerce is also concerned about the idea of a “technology transfer” to countries like China and Brazil, as called for in last year’s Bali action plan, negotiated at climate-treaty talks. “We’re not just out to defend America,” said Mark Esper, the executive vice president of the chamber’s Global Intellectual Property Center. “We’re out to defend the system.”

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