A key issue at the heart of our last two controversial posts was the potential for innovation in low carbon technologies to delink energy growth (and therefore economc growth) from carbon emissions. One comment accused us of having a “blind faith in infinite innovation”. I wouldn’t quite put it that way, but we do believe that innovation offers the only viable path to mitigation, mainly by making clean energy cheap.
A couple of examples that have come my way in the last couple of days serve to illustrate the point. Google has been pursuing R&D to bring down the cost of renewable energy to below that of energy from coal, and has just announced a new mirror technology that could halve the cost of concentrated solar power (rather confusingly known as solar thermal in the US). Meanwhile, researchers at Caltech have developed a new solar photovoltaic (PV) technology, based on light-absorbing silicon microwires, that uses 1% of the material required for conventional solar PV while producing the same amount of electricity. If this can be scaled up, it offers dramatically lower costs, driven by fewer inputs and a shorter manufacturing process.
For the true geeks, there are many other examples of both incremental improvements and breakthroughs on sites such as GreenTechMedia and MIT’s Technology Review. Of course, some reports are overhyped, and there is a particular incentive for venture capital backed projects to oversell their technology’s performance. Nevertheless, if you want to see what the low carbon future might look like, these aren’t bad places to start.
There are three broad points to make about what’s going on. First, these examples and others like them remind us that innovation opens up new options. There is a tendency to think in quite a fixed way about climate policy and technologies – that solar power will always be too expensive to play a major role, or that wind intermittency is an insoluble problem because it is so difficult and expensive to store electricity. The value of innovation is that it produces surprises, but this process can blindside policy makers and campaigners alike.
A second thing to grasp is that there isn’t really such a thing as “energy technology”. What is going on is the application of a range of established and emerging scientific disciplines to the low carbon problem. The Caltech solar PV breakthrough is a good example of the application of nanotechnology, which is also being pursued in electrical storage – vital for making renewable energy viable. In bio-fuels, the application of biotech is the big growth area, and although there are obvious questions about the risks of genetically-engineered microbes and algae to the wider environment, it is clear that conventional biofuel production is an environmetal dead-end. This alternative route is thus a potentially important one, since it will not mean the giving over of vast tracts of land to energy crops. Materials science is important in areas like new forms of lighting. Molecular engineering is responsible for breakthroughs such as the creation of a new amine that promises to cut the energy penalty – and therefore the major cost element – of CCS by a third. This could mean savings of billions of dollars in retrofitting coal-fired power stations around the world. ICT, meanwhile, is playing a major role in energy efficiency, through the development of intelligent building management systems and smart grids, a key enabler of intermittent renewables like wind and solar.
A final point is that this is still early days for low carbon innovation. The technologies we currently have are like the Amstrads and early mobile phones of the 1980s – crude and costly. This is largely because very little R&D money and effort has gone into the energy field in the last 30 years, and the innovations I’m describing here are the fruit of just the last few years , with relatively small amounts of money. In the UK, the flagship low carbon innnovation programe – the Energy Technologies Institute – gets public funding of £500 million over 10 years, or £50 million a year. This is a little less than we spend on subsidising opera. So much for the greatest threat facing humanity. We urgently need a huge scaling up of suport. However, this is unlikely to change until campaign groups get on the case.
Thus while innovation is, I believe, the only viable route to mitigation, it will cost money, not only in support to R&D and in creating niche markets, but also in paying for the accelerated turnover of capital that will be needed to deploy new technologies much more rapidly than in the past. That raises the question of how we can raise the money in a politically realistic and fair way, a question that we’ll return to in the future.