Guest post by Roger Caiazza
The International Energy Agency (IEA) recently published “Special Report on Clean Energy Innovation” that concludes that innovation is necessary for jurisdictions and companies to fulfill their de-carbonization targets. While the authors could not keep from using the Covid-19 crisis as a call for more innovation, the report does provide useful reference information on the technical readiness of decarbonization technologies.
The report explains:
“Without a major acceleration in clean energy innovation, net-zero emissions targets will not be achievable. The world has seen a proliferating number of pledges by numerous governments and companies to reach net-zero carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions in the coming decades as part of global efforts to meet long-term sustainability goals, such as the Paris Agreement on climate change. But there is a stark disconnect between these high-profile pledges and the current state of clean energy technology. While the technologies in use today can deliver a large amount of the emissions reductions called for by these goals, they are insufficient on their own to bring the world to net zero while ensuring energy systems remain secure – even with much stronger policies supporting them”.
The IEA website describing this report explains why innovation is necessary and the magnitude of the effort needed to decarbonize and the innovation necessary to make it work. I found the Energy Transition Plan Clean Energy Technology Guide to be a useful summary of around 400 component technologies and identifies their stage of readiness for the market.. It includes an interactive section where you can choose a sector, various filters and get a summary of the readiness of different technologies. There also is a poster that you can download and magnify to see similar information. IEA uses the technology readiness level (TRL) scale to assess where a technology is on its journey from initial idea to market use so I will discuss that aspect in more detail.
The EIA report notes that de-carbonization comes from four main technology approaches. These are the electrification of end-use sectors such as heating and transport; the application of carbon capture, utilization and storage; the use of low-carbon hydrogen and hydrogen-derived fuels; and the use of bioenergy. EIA explains that each of these areas faces challenges in making all parts of the technological application process, what they call the value chain, commercially viable in the sectors where reducing emissions is hardest. The IEA report uses the technology readiness level (TRL) scale where the level of maturity of a given technology is measured against a defined scale that defines where the technology stands:
- Prototype: A concept is developed into a design, and then into a prototype for a new device (e.g. a furnace that produces steel with pure hydrogen instead of coal).
- Demonstration: The first examples of a new technology are introduced at the size of a full-scale commercial unit (e.g. a system that captures CO2 emissions from cement plants).
- Early adoption: At this stage, there is still a cost and performance gap with established technologies, which policy attention must address (e.g. electric and hydrogen-powered cars).
- Mature: As deployment progresses, the product moves into the mainstream as a common choice for new purchases (e.g. hydropower turbines).
For illustration purposes I will describe three figures in the document that use the simple four stage scale described above. The Energy Transition Plan Clean Energy Technology Guide uses a more refined 11 stage scale.
Electrification of the transport, industry and buildings sectors combined with the deployment of renewables in power generation are important components of any de-carbonization plan. Figure 3.2, Technology Readiness Level of technologies along the low-carbon electricity value chain, in the report shows that some technologies have reached maturity but many others have a long way to go. The report notes that this problem with readiness is “particularly true in demand areas such as heavy industry and long-distance transport that are proving difficult to electrify”.
De-carbonization plans will also have to include capture, transport and utilization or storage of CO2 emissions. Figure 3.3, Technology Readiness Level of technologies along the CO2 value chain, shows that “not all parts of the CO2 value chain are operating at commercial scale today: many of the relevant technologies are still at the demonstration and the large prototype stage”.
The report notes that “The value chain for low-carbon hydrogen is not completely developed at commercial scale today. It comprises many technologies that are necessary to produce, transport, store and consume low-carbon hydrogen, each of them at a different stage of maturity and facing specific technical challenges” as shown in Figure 3.4 Technology Readiness Level of technologies along the low-carbon hydrogen value chain.
Although I was impressed with the technical approach for assessing the readiness of technology, the IEA website goes away from the technical aspects of the report to sermonize on the current situation. The report goes on to argue that innovation is needed to help reach net-zero emissions goals faster. They argue that industrial development is based on cyclical investments so if the new technologies are not ready for deployment when industries start a new investment cycle there will be “locked-in” investments. Not surprisingly then they note:
“At a time when faster innovation is sorely needed, the Covid-19 pandemic has delivered a major setback. In the immediate future, the world’s capacity to bring new technologies to market will be weaker as a result of the disruptions caused by the pandemic. Market and policy uncertainties threaten to reduce the funds available to entrepreneurs.”
At a time when government revenues are down across the world, it certainly is time to take stock of priorities. It may well be that proponents of the net-zero future realize that when financial choices are made between basic human services and clean energy innovation that the public may start looking behind the curtain and not be impressed with their plans. IEA argues “If governments rise to the challenge created by the Covid-19 crisis, they have an opportunity to accelerate clean energy innovation” and they propose five key innovation principles:
“For governments aiming to achieve net-zero emissions goals while maintaining energy security, these principles primarily address national policy challenges in the context of global needs, but are relevant to all policy makers and strategists concerned with energy technologies and transitions:
- Prioritise, track and adjust. Review the processes for selecting technology portfolios for public support to ensure that they are rigorous, collective, flexible and aligned with local advantages.
- Raise public R&D and market-led private innovation. Use a range of tools – from public research and development to market incentives – to expand funding according to the different technologies.
- Address all links in the value chain. Look at the bigger picture to ensure that all components of key value chains are advancing evenly towards the next market application and exploiting spillovers.
- Build enabling infrastructure. Mobilise private finance to help bridge the “valley of death” by sharing the investment risks of network enhancements and commercial-scale demonstrators.
- Work globally for regional success. Co-operate to share best practices, experiences and resources to tackle urgent and global technology challenges, including via existing multilateral platforms.
As countries around the world pursue a more secure and sustainable energy future, the IEA will continue to support governments, industry, investors and other stakeholders in advancing energy innovation with the aim of accelerating transitions to cleaner and more resilient energy systems.”
I recommend looking at the report and their technical readiness evaluation of technologies. Because it is an overview, I suspect that those with specific experience with some of the technologies included may argue with the readiness levels listed. I did have trouble finding some of the technologies proposed for New York’s net-zero aspirations in the IEA report. I presume that is because of nomenclature differences and not because the promoters of New York’s decarbonization pathways have not chosen some technology that IEA rejects out of hand. On the other hand, the call for clean energy innovation as a response to the challenge created by the Covid-19 crisis seems to be nothing more than not letting a crisis go to waste.
Roger Caiazza blogs on New York energy and environmental issues at Pragmatic Environmentalist of New York. This represents his opinion and not the opinion of any of his previous employers or any other company he has been associated with.