IEA: Clean-energy innovation essential to meeting climate goals

The International Energy Agency (IEA) on Monday called for a concerted push for clean-energy innovation, saying it was the only way the world could meet its climate goals.

Presenting its Energy Technology Perspectives 2015 report in Paris, the IEA said that despite a few recent success stories, clean-energy progress was “falling well short of the levels needed to limit the global increase in temperatures to no more than 2 degrees Celsius.”

The agency predicted that it would be challenging for the world to meet its climate goals solely through the U.N. negotiation process that is expected to result in an agreement in December.

The “development and deployment of new, ground-breaking energy technologies” is key to mobilizing climate action, the IEA said. The new report urges policymakers to step up efforts to support them.

“The stakes are high for the energy sector, but it is also no stranger to profound technological change,” said IEA Executive Director Maria van der Hoeven. “An incredible chain of innovations in the energy sector has been at the vanguard of social and economic transformation for over a century, and it is exciting to see the progress being made by solar panels and fuel economy improvements for passenger cars today, to name but two.”

Governments must triple spending on energy R&D to more than $50 million

Van der Hoeven warned, however, that the world could not be complacent. She pointed out that the international community had set itself environmental and energy access targets that relied on better technologies. Current annual government spending on energy research and development is estimated at $17 billion. “Tripling this level, as we recommend, requires governments and the private sector to work closely together and shift their focus to low-carbon technologies,” van der Hoeven added.

The ETP 2015 report provides a comprehensive analysis of long-term trends in the energy sector, centered on the technologies and the level of deployment needed for a more environmentally sustainable, secure, and affordable energy system. Recent success stories, such as the rapid growth of solar PV and last year’s inauguration of the world’s first large-scale power station equipped with carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) technology, indicate that there is significant and untapped potential for accelerating research and development in clean technologies, according to the IEA.

However, research and development alone is not enough to transform new technologies from ideas to commercial products, the agency added, arguing that governments have a key role to play in creating the initial market opportunities that send a signal to innovators and drive investment.

The IEA underscored one major success story: Public support for renewable energy technologies, which the agency said had transformed the market outlook for wind and solar to the extent that they are now the lowest-cost source of power in a number of regions.

“This result, unthinkable only a decade or so ago, is the power of innovation,” said van der Hoeven. “Given our current climate realities, more of that power must be unleashed on the world.”

Like all IEA publications, ETP 2015 does not make long-term forecasts. Instead, it is built around economic modelling scenarios – each of which shows what mix of energy technologies would need to be deployed to obtain a specific climate outcome.

The main scenario of ETP 2015 — the 2-Degree Scenario, or 2DS – illustrates a transformed global energy system in which cumulative carbon emissions from fossil fuels are reduced by 40% relative to the “business-as-usual” scenario, or “6DS.”

The report shows that the 2DS makes global climate goals attainable while also enhancing energy security. It also makes economic sense, according to the study: “For every dollar invested in the clean-energy technologies that drive the 2DS, nearly three dollars in fuel costs are avoided by 2050.”

The study also includes the annual Tracking Clean Energy Progress report, which for the first time looks at progress in storage and hydrogen technology.

The report concludes that building and maintaining strong innovation capacity in emerging economies will be key to successful deployment of sustainable energy technologies where they may have the largest impacts. Domestic innovation of low-carbon technologies in emerging economies is increasing, with some countries – especially China – closing the gap in key areas.

Van der Hoeven stressed that ETP 2015 only models existing technologies but noted that the right support to innovation coupled with effective public-private partnerships could provide the energy technology breakthroughs needed to amplify or hasten the low-carbon transition.

“The shale gas and shale oil boom of the last few years was virtually unthinkable at the dawn of this century,” she said. “If we only stick to the beaten path of today, we will miss the game-changers of tomorrow.”