By - Jim Vess

Technologies to bring economies to zero carbon emissions still lacking, IEA says

Energize Weekly, August 12, 2020

Many countries have announced ambitious climate goals to bring their economies to net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, but the technologies needed to cut emissions in areas like shipping and steelmaking don’t exist and may take decades to bring to market, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA).

The IEA report on clean energy innovation found large gaps in technology, in investment and research and development (R&D).

“There is a stark disconnect today between the climate goals that governments and companies have set for themselves and the current state of affordable and reliable energy technologies that can realize these goals,” Fatih Birol, IEA executive director, said in statement.

“The message is very clear: in the absence of much faster clean energy innovation, achieving net-zero goals in 2050 will be all but impossible,” Birol said.

Among the economic activities lacking technologies to reduce or capture carbon are trucking, aviation and heavy industries such as cement and chemicals.

History, however, shows that it can take 20 to 70 years for new energy technologies to go from prototype to a market penetration of at least 1 percent.

LED (light-emitting diode) bulbs and lithium-ion batteries are two of the technologies to recently attain rapid market adoption, but they took 10 to 30 years to go from the first prototype to the mass market.

Even successful technologies, such as photovoltaic solar and wind power, need to keep innovating to reduce costs and accelerate deployment, the agency said.

Technologies already in prototype could account for about 35 percent of the cumulative carbon dioxide emissions needed to move economies toward sustainability, while another 40 percent of needed reductions rely on technologies not yet commercially deployed on a mass-market scale.

The IEA analysis said that about half the emission reductions would come from four technological approaches: electrification of end-use sectors such as heating and transport; carbon capture and storage (CCUS); low-carbon hydrogen and hydrogen-derived fuels; and bioenergy.

“Each of these areas faces challenges in making all parts of its value chain commercially viable in the sectors where reducing emissions is hardest,” the report said.

In 2019, global corporate R&D spending reached $90 billion, while early-stage venture capital investment in growth areas, such as hydrogen and batteries, was $4 billion.

Government energy R&D around the world grew about 3 percent to $30 billion over 2018, with 80 percent focused on low-carbon technologies.

The IEA report said that more investment and better coordination is needed to pick up the pace. “It is clearly of paramount importance to ensure that government and corporate R&D portfolios and priorities are aligned with a transition to net-zero emissions,” the report said.

The report underscored how long the development period has been for several successful technologies.

It took wind power generation from 1957 to 1978 to get from prototype to commercial product and until 1988 to gain a 1 percent market share in Norway.

The United Kingdom (UK) government heavily promoted LED bulbs. Still, it took from 1992 to 2002 to go from prototype to market introduction, and it took another 10 years to get a 1 percent share of the market.

In March 2020, the UK pledged $1 billion to CCUS infrastructure. The European Union’s $12 billion Innovation Fund is also set to support CCUS projects, and the U.S. Department of Energy has earmarked $22 million for CCUS research and development grants.

To meet the IEA’s “sustainable development scenario,” which aims to limit global temperature increases to 1.8 degree Centigrade or less, with emissions at net-zero by 2070, CCUS technology would have to be market ready by 2026. The agency said that battery-powered heavy-duty trucks would have be on the market by 2032.

“If key technologies become available by 2030 to take advantage of the next round of plant refurbishments in heavy industry, nearly 60 gigatons of carbon emissions could be avoided,” the IEA said.

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