One of the Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI) key projects is called the “Electricity Innovation Lab” (or “E-Lab” for short). The project is a major initiative that is led by RMI to drive change in the US electricity sector. RMI held a Google Hangout to provide an update and call for donations.
RMI describes E-lab as “an assembly of thought leaders and decision makers from across the U.S. electricity sector” that “focuses on collaborative innovation to address critical institutional, regulatory, business, economic, and technical barriers to the economic deployment of distributed resources in the U.S. electricity sector”. It is an interesting experiment with new approaches for “solving complex problems”. Two aspects of their remarks in the Google Hangout stood out:
1. Shifts in RMI’s thinking regarding change barriers and opportunities: the project leader Lena Hansen commented that RMI now recognises that technical issues and solutions are not the main requirement for achieving the transition to a future electricity system with greater efficiency, that is heavily renewables based, and more distributed. She asserted “the real challenges are in the business structures by which the system works, the regulatory constructs that govern that business, the way the system and the actors within the system actually engage with one another to take action and move things forward”. This was also described as the core “people problem” requiring institutional and cultural change in order to make major transitions happen.
RMI’s Chief Operating Office, Ned Harvey, stated that E-lab is significantly different from what RMI was doing five years ago. E-lab is a multi-year initiative that RMI is spending $1-1.5 million a year on via participants’ financial contributions and additional donations.
2. Explicit focus on long-term systemic change. The project leader used phases like enabling a “whole system perspective”, and “at the end of the day what we’re trying to do is effect the system not any one particular actor”. She argues that energy sector has suffered from a lack of new creative ideas which acts as a barrier to the “fundamental change” that is required.