IEA Special Report on Clean Energy Innovation

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.”

Conclusion

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. 

43 thoughts on “IEA Special Report on Clean Energy Innovation

  1. What evidence will it finally take to convince these promoters that their product (decarbonization) is a failure, has always been a failure, will always be a failure and that there is limited fun putting more lipstick on this pig. Geoff S

    • Yea, and were our brothers and sisters, the plant world, consulted in the construction of “CO2 Value Chain”? CO2 is dangerously low and we are moving toward another active glacial cycle and we need to enhance CO2 values, not recklessly attack them. Geez!

    • The most significant evidence that decarbonization won’t work is when governments stop sending promoters money. They haven’t run the teat dry yet it seems.

    • What evidence will it take?

      The only evidence most of them are interested in is how much money is flowing into their pockets.
      They will abandon renewables when that happens, not before.

    • Their product is not only a failure, it is completely misdirected and thus stupid. We need more CO2 not less. It’s really so far wrong that it is equivalent to putting a plastic bag over your head to improve your breathing.

  2. If Covid-19 spawned financial constrictions force people to look behind the screen of ‘renewable energy’ and discover the horrible truth, they may well also pull aside the curtain on the CO2/Global Warming fable and discover the awful truth to be seen there too.

  3. ” you can lead a horse to water but you can”t make it think..” ?
    ..or something like that..
    Cheers
    Mike

    • And yet every major city in the U.S., and a lot of smaller ones, have made these high-profile pledges without any thought that there might be a disconnect between pledges and reality.

      If you are really going to be “carbon neutral” (whatever that means) by 2050, you are going to have to start TODAY, with technology that is mature today. When you look at the chart of “low-carbon electricity value chain”, there are only four “blue” technologies, in generation an transportation. And only two that are suitable- nuclear and electric trains. But are nuclear and electric rail part of any of these cities’ plans? Of course not.

      The only conclusion that can drawn is that these pledges are not serious, but are merely virtue signaling. We owe the International Energy Agency a thank you for making that so abundantly clear.

  4. Just wondering, when did the lipstick-on-pig EIEIO become beholden to the ipcc (motto: “our science is indisputable!”) and the Greenie Industrial Complex (“If it’s Green, it’s Good!”)?

  5. OK, I actually went and looked at the report. My quick take. It represents a lot of work. There seems to be a lot of information there — some of it at least valid and interesting. BUT, the interface to the data seems extraordinarily obtuse. At least I found it very difficult to navigate and probably won’t look at it again.

    A point: It’s difficult to be sure because of the odd structure. But they seem to ignore nuclear. As it happens, I’m personally slightly anti-nuke because I think folks underestimate the difficulty of building ten or twenty thousand nuclear power plants without having a major nuclear accident every few years. But how the heck can you do a report on zero-emission technologies and just ignore nuclear — which is the only technology that seems currently actually able to support zero-emissions?

    • Even “major” nuclear accidents are no big deal?
      With the exception of Chernobyl, nobody has died in a nuclear accident.
      Chernobyl doesn’t count because it was a design that was rejected by the west because it was unsafe, but adopted by the Soviets because it was cheap. They also cheaped out by not building a containment vessel.
      To boot, someone decided to run a test to see how close they could get to the unstable regime and still be able to control the reactor. To set it up, they turned off almost all of the automated safety equipment.

      • Mark: “Even “major” nuclear accidents are no big deal?”

        I’m not sure. I agree that as industrial accident human damage goes, Fukushima daiichi was pretty mild compared to Bhopal or the two Texas City disasters. But it did wreck three or four expensive reactors. It’s not clear whether the number 4 unit is repairable, but that’s probably moot as the site is such mess that it’s unlikely that even the two undamaged reactors will ever restart. That’s 1% of the planet’s nuclear power capability destroyed in a few days.

        The big thing is that it tends to be unclear in the days and weeks after a major nuclear incident just how big the problem is. Authorities have little choice but to assume the worst. One incident like TMI or Fukushima ever decade or two doesn’t seem like that big a deal (at least not to me). But if we try to bring everyone on the planet who wants a decent lifestyle up to speed, we’re going to need a LOT of reactors. And maybe a major incident every year or two.

        • Something like 20,000 people died from the tsunami at Fukushima, didn’t they? Yet we perseverate on the few who have died or might die from the damage to the reactor. This is sick.

          Reactors are safe, as industrial processes go.

    • I thought it was worth calling attention to this report so I prepared this summary. Personally I intend to use it when the New York “all it takes is political will” crowd claims some pie in the sky technology is feasible to say that is not the case according to the IEA, hardly a denialist organization.

      I agree that this represents a lot of work butIt is not without its flaws. The interactive interface is “extraordinarily obtuse”. Let me try to explain how you can get an answer to what they think about nuclear power options:

      Go to https://www.iea.org/articles/etp-clean-energy-technology-guide

      The instructions say “Use the filters below to narrow down the selection of technologies you are interested in”. About the fourth time I was at the page I finally figured out that they wanted the user to choose a sector by clicking on the list of what I thought were links to other web pages and not part of the interactive interface.

      For example, click on power under energy transformation
      Under filter technologies in this sector click on the menu box under Technology where it says “All:. A list appears and you can pick the option for nuclear.

      There are five options listed but thorium is not listed. Light water reactor-based small modular reactor is listed. On the right hand side there is a details option that provides information.

    • Yes, and they also didn’t include Natural Gas – Pure Oxygen generation of electricity, even though it is zero emission CO2, has a 50 MwH plant in operation in Texas, and is waiting only for funding to be arranged through investors. NET Power (https://netpower.com/) has developed the technology, but it wouldn’t be included by the IEA likely because it uses Gas and it does not require subsidies to be competitive (around 2 cents per KwH.

  6. What a complete load of crap. The leading nations are all rushing to commercialize molten salt small
    modular nuclear reactors. There are no additional advancements intechnology required – all designs are in the prototype stage and commercialization will occur within 5 to 6 years. Any attempt to compare as similar molten salt reactors with conventional nuclear reactors is total fraud – the two technologies could hardly be any more dissimular – molten salt reactors are inherently safe and impossible to inflict any damage to man nor beast. They can also load folllow, eliminating most needs for any peak load auxillery power generation, and their cost is roughly half the cost of a conventioal nuclear reacto – reliable estimates are for levelizedf power costs of 4 cents per kWhr, making it among the cheapest technologies available. They also are air cooled, so don’t require any bodies of water nearby for cooling, and can be located virtuallly anywhere.They are small generaors that canbemade in factories very quickly andinstalled at site very quickly – they cn be located most anyehre – within cities, etc. Physically, they have no ability to inflict any damage to the environment.

    • Actually, I agree that if we are going to try to power the world with nuclear power (and in the very long run, we may have to), molten salt reactors are worth another look. But I think that unless one thinks that “inherently safe” is the same thing as “unconditionally safe”, small is dubious idea. If one believes as I do that it is impossible to underestimate the ability of an MBA to undercut facility safety while attempting to control costs, one wants as few nuclear reactors as possible. If the world can be reliably powered by 2000 reactors, that’s probably roughly 100 times safer than 200,000

      As for the rest of your oft repeated message. In your own words “What a complete load of crap.”

      • Don K – All forms of energy, from fossil fuel to hydro to “renewable” to nuclear cause deaths. It turns out that nuclear causes among the fewest deaths per unit of energy produced. It is only because of the public’s fear of atomic bombs that nuclear is thought to be more dangerous than other forms.

        Uranium nuclear is more dangerous than thorium nuclear, so let’s not automatically dismiss thorium without actually comparing the safety of the whole cycle, from production of the materials to building & fueling of the plant to production of power to decommissioning.

    • I love the “leading nations are all rushing” 🙂

      The amount of R&D money being spent on it wouldn’t even cover the expenditure of 1 climate change bunga bunga party and as such can you really call it rushing.

  7. The book, Why Greatness Cannot Be Planned: The Myth of the Objective, examines the fundamental problem that governs innovation. That problem is the requirement for breakthroughs.

    Breakthroughs usually happen by accident. The main requirement is a mind prepared to notice them. The one thing that almost guarantees that a breakthrough won’t happen is planning and management. Planning and management only work if you want incremental improvements.

    We know there will be breakthroughs but we have no way of knowing what they will be. The best way to get breakthroughs is curiosity driven research. The problem is that granting agencies and university administrations pretty much prevent that.

    • A good point. Planning and management are how engineers take a breakthrough from prototype to commercial operation.

    • CommieBob: I agree that Innovation is unplanned. But it seems to me that most actual progress is via incremental improvements. Witness the semiconductor industry which has grown dramatically for seven decades in tiny steps. Pretty clearly improved energy storage is important to use of large amounts of intermittent energy. In general batteries seem the way to go as the alternatives come with a bunch of daunting drawbacks. For example, I think most of us would be a bit nervous if we had to live anywhere near a flywheel big enough to power Las Vegas overnight.

      Batteries are improving — a little bit every year. It’s difficult to quantify how much because there are so many considerations, power density, efficiency, aging, reliability, etc, etc, etc. But they are getting better. Will they ever be good enough to actually allow the world to be powered by wind and solar? I don’t know? I don’t think anyone knows. How long can the wind not blow?

      • The limit of battery capacity is defined by chemistry. So until someone invents some new elements, there will be no big improvements in batteries. There may be a few minor improvements in terms of reducing internal resistance and in manufacturing processes, but all the major gains have already been wrung out.

        • True for lead-acid battery. Lithium is on the starting block. Alumin(i)um is not yet there.

          • Lithium has been in use for over a decade. Hardly “on the starting block”.
            Aluminum can’t be recharged.

        • Mark — I looked into that once. I could easily be wrong, but I think that current batteries are nowhere near the theoretical limits for energy density in a chemical storage device. I think that the theoretical limit for batteries is around 5 Mj/Kg. That’s for a Hydrogen-Scandium battery that no one knows how to build and might, once built, might be utterly useless for practical applications. Hydrocarbon fuels are a factor of five or so better than that. But you lose some energy using them to generate electricity.

          For a lot of (non-transportation) applications, energy density is not all that important . I mean, who cares if your town’s backup battery occupies one city block or four city blocks?

          But people are going to care if wind and encounter an extended period of lousy weather that puts generation over time behind demand day after day after day. My guess is that they will care a lot. You’re probably going to need **BIG** batteries.

          • “I mean, who cares if your town’s backup battery occupies one city block or four city blocks?”

            The bigger the building, the more it costs to build and maintain.

  8. Don K’ s comment above about thousands of nuclear plants being built reminded me of something that I saw in a news report about the 3 Gorges Dam scare ( don’t be alarmed it was just a silly season media scare a month early) approximately a week ago. The report said something about a collapse of the dam engulfing 66 nuclear plants down stream. Sixty six nuclear plants in one chinese province? Surely mistake by the journalist . How did China manage to build so many in just one part of china ? In the UK we are struggling just to replace one: struggling financially , and in rate of construction .

    • Well, one does tend to build nuclear plants where cooling water is reliably available. The Yangtse River would be a reasonable candidate. But since (per Wikipedia) China only had 46 reactors operational as of March 2019, it seems unlikely that 66 of them are downstream of the Three Gorges Dam.

  9. Another alleged Environmentalist that doesn’t know anything about chemistry, biology, thermodynamics or energy density of carbon-based fuels. And where the ____ is he going to get all this electricity….SSDD.
    David Middleton intellectually slap this guy upside the head—PLEASE.

  10. Love how everything is electric in this futuristic model.

    but nothing on HOW to get that electricity.

    Look, I’m all about innovation, but I believe the true innovation will be independent electricity, not dependent. Which means, instead of looking at models where large cities generate enough electricity for it’s citizens, why not look at a means for each individual citizen to generate that electricity themselves without the need for turning every balcony, rooftop and any available space into a bug roaster (i.e. solar panel), or bird guillotine in order to do it.

    We need to stop this insistence that only fossil fuels are bad and look toward the future where everything is powered by itself. Independent electricity–which means not just generation but looking at storage of that electricity as well (or heck, not even needing storage). Time to go small, not large. Make it work on a small scale, then figure out how to scale it up from there.

    Why independent? Why not? Since we’re dreaming of running the world on inefficient solar panels and inconsistent wind……why not dream of small fusion.

  11. “I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.” Heard that before? I’m a technology enthusiast and look forward to hydrogen, but I’m not about to rob the public to do it. It could be a long way in the future and CO2 does no harm.

  12. There are veiled messages here including 1) innovation in this case is code for more federal spending not cost reduction with efficiency from a private sector perspective and 2) signaling to our potential new boss and Party leaders is also important.

  13. Roger, what you have summarized seems like a dull, bureaucratic report version of this famous book…

    “Here’s an easy game to play
    here’s an easy thing to say

    Fox in socks, our game is done, sir
    Thank you for a lot of fun, sir”

  14. Roger Caiazza –

    Thanks for bring this report to the attention of WUWT readers. I think the IEA report proves that the Democrats “Green New Deal” has no connection with reality.

  15. Proposing molten salt reactors as the energy answer is a distraction, no better than the current effort to replace “fossil fuels” with sunshine and breezes. Surely no serious student of MSR technology would suggest first commercial operation prior to 2035. Accelerated testing methods of the corrosion resistant materials required will not satisfy regulators much less investors. Such testing over a 5 or more likely 10 year period may find the “best” materials but the “best” materials need to last 40 years to be commercial. Realistically, the only hope we have for phasing in nuclear technology from 2030-2050 is NuScale’ small scale modular reactors. Don’t doubt it (IMHO).

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