It is hard to fully describe the feeling of stepping into the world of Stan Ovshinsky. I have driven that hydrogen-powered Prius described by Avery Cohn in his 2008 article and marveled at the compact hydrogen storage system that Stan had designed. I sat across the desk from Stan in his office as he showed me the simplified diagram that seemed to sum up the opportunity that the universe has laid out before us – a hydrogen-driven, solar fire radiating energy that makes its way to earth and can easily be converted to electricity, which can then separate hydrogen from water molecules for our clean energy use – a virtuous hydrogen cycle.
What was immediately evident was his passion, his deep and profound knowledge, and his intellectual generosity. It was impossible to talk to Stan and not want all of his dreams to come true – because his dreams should be our dreams.
We are a funny species, we humans. So much potential. So many astounding accomplishments. And yet, it is so very hard to come together to support solutions that would make life better for all of us. Call it a challenge of vantage points – there are so many perches from which to observe the world. Call it an outgrowth of dramatically different life experiences. If failing health, oppression, bigotry or economic circumstances make us unable to dwell on the forest beyond the trees, chosen priorities can be very short-term and the focus, by necessity, may be insular. Whether it is a common agreement to wear cloth masks to curb a pandemic, or a clear dedication to ending our use of fossil fuels, it does not seem to be in our nature to place our trust in those who have worked through these problems and offer us sound solutions.
In his play An Enemy of the People, Henrik Ibsen observed that it will take anywhere up to fifty years for any new truth to take hold and guide societal action. The characters in his play did not have the luxury of waiting that long in order to preserve public health. And neither do we.
Ibsen wrote in a different time when information-dispensing media were far less pervasive. The challenge now, of course, is there is little filter on the streams that bring information to us within seconds that might help us to identify what is true or that might help us, as a society, to continue to value the truth.
What has been missing is empowered leadership on climate issues – the kind that California has experienced for many years, but on the national level, where state borderlines don’t get in the way. How tragic that “trust in science” has become a political identifier and that denial of clear fact is allowed to pass unchallenged. It does not have to be that way. A strong leader can change the conversation, embrace the gifts of knowledge and invention provided by experts present and past, acknowledge the outsized obligation of the United States to act decisively, and set a clear path forward. In my mind, a clear path does not involve keeping the door open to “all of the above,” or hoping that market forces alone with take us in the right direction at the needed rate of change. There is more than one acceptable way to get to a decarbonized world – with effective leadership, we need to choose one path, and get started.
The feeling that one had after talking to Stan Ovshinsky? It was the sense that he and others have handed us the keys to a better future, and that we are obliged to get in and drive.
STEVE WEISSMAN is a lecturer at UC Berkeley’s Goldman School of Public Policy, as well as the co-creater and former Director of the Energy Law program at UC Berkeley School of Law, where he also taught numerous energy law and policy courses. He came to UC Berkeley from the California Public Utilities Commission, where he was an administrative law judge as well as policy and legal advisor to three different commissioners.
Stan Ovshinsky spoke at Berkeley in 2008. CLAS published several articles about his visit:
· “A Revolution Fueled by the Sun“
· Physicist Arthur Bienenstock on Ovshinsky
· “The Einstein of Alternative Energy?”
· Video of Ovshinsky’s talk, “Alternative Energy and the Americas”