Energising R&D for the great transformation

Solar energy plant
Photo: Windwärts Energie GmbH / Photographer: Mark Mühlhaus/attenzione
Jan 2015

A transition to low carbon energy sources is needed to limit climate change. But is energy R&D moving fast enough?

Decarbonising the global economy is one of the great tasks of the century. The IPCC’s Synthesis Report at the beginning of November underlined the need to get on with it. That’s OK, though, because a shift to low carbon energy production is already achievable technically. All that is needed is movement in institutions, and in policies, leading to action that is both feasible and affordable. According to IPCC chair Raj Pachauri, “We have the means to limit climate change”.

It is a familiar suggestion from a body that, in this regard at least, likes to accentuate the positive. The report argues that there have been big improvements in renewable energy technologies since the last IPCC assessment in 2007. These, together with energy efficiency, carbon capture, and nuclear (which it describes as “a mature low greenhouse gas emission source of baseload power”) contribute to the Panel’s latest scenarios in which we succeed in limiting warming to 2 degrees centigrade.

However, despite all the improvements in renewables, the overall energy transition shows little sign of happening yet. There is rapid growth in renewable energy generation, with solar becoming cost-competitive in more and more contexts. There are continual reports of improvements in materials for solar panels, and progress toward game-changing aims such as artificial photosynthesis. But their total effect to date falls far short of what is needed.

Consider the simplest numbers. The IPCC wants to see carbon dioxide emissions fall to zero by the end of this century, with a drop of between 40 per cent and 70 per cent by 2050 – over a time when energy demand is likely to increase substantially. In that light, although deployment of low-carbon energy technologies is expanding fast, their overall contribution remains proportionally small. Fossil fuel use is still rising, especially for coal. Result? As the International Energy Agency emphasises, globally “the amount of CO2 emitted for each unit of energy supplied has fallen by less than 1% since 1990.”

This mismatch between aspiration and achievement prompted commentators on the Synthesis Report such as Andy Revkin of the New York Times to highlight energy research and development (R&D) as a key ingredient in the policy mix that has been neglected, not least by the IPCC. As he put it, “without a substantial boost in basic research and development and large-scale demonstration projects related to technologies like mass energy storage, capturing and storing carbon dioxide, grid management and a new generation of nuclear plants, it’s hard to see timely progress”.

Analysis of current R&D spending patterns suggests such a boost is only likely with state backing. A 2014 paper in Energies by Aidan Rhodes of Imperial College London’s Centre for Environmental Policy and colleagues indicates that there has been a rise in support for energy R&D in recent years, from a rather low level. Overall, they write, “The picture of global public R&D budgets is one of substantial and transformative change”. There is a growing emphasis on renewables, although it still only accounted for a $3.7 billion in the countries surveyed by the International Energy Agency in 2011, out of a total energy R&D spend of $17.2 billion.

This contrasts sharply with private sector. Data here is harder to compile, and there are significant public-private R&D partnerships in some countries. However, on their best global estimates, energy R&D spend among the 2000 top R&D companies in 2012 remained overwhelmingly geared to oil and gas production and distribution. These accounted for more than $15 billion out of a total of around $20 billion, while “alternative energy” secured less than $1billion.

This suggests, they argue, that private and public sector R&D have quite different aims. Crudely, industry is funding research to extend the life of the existing energy system, while only the public sector funds work that could transform it.

And even though Rhodes and colleagues saw an increase in global spending, the totals are still low compared with the trillion dollar infrastructure investments needed in coming decades, or with other research priorities. The US government, for example, spends far more on defence, health and space R&D than on energy.

That is the background to an initiative seeking to lift public energy R&D to a new level. The UK former chief scientific adviser Sir David King is leading an effort to persuade governments to sign up to spend 0.02 per cent of their GDP on new energy research from 2016-2025.

That would give the Global Apollo Programme, as it is called, a budget of roughly $10 billion a year, if the ten countries targeted all sign up. Potential contributors include the US, Japan, Britain, and other European countries, and – the proponents hope – India, China and Brazil.

When King and the economist Richard Layard first floated the idea in 2013 the main aim was simple: “to enable bulk electricity to be produced more cheaply by solar energy than by any fossil fuel”. They then envisaged the G20 countries committing 0.05 per cent of GDP, a sum which would match the original Apollo moon shot effort in the 1960s.

Since then, the cash target has been trimmed, and while the emphasis on solar technologies remains, it is clear that making those technologies cheaper is not just a matter of capturing photons. King, now the UK Foreign Secretary’s Special Representative on climate change, explained the plans in more detail on an official visit to India in September. He indicated that they would focus on research, development and demonstration of new means of energy storage – what he called the “missing technology”. Smart grid technology for distribution would also be part of the project.

Each country would see funds deployed in its own territory, as part of an agreed programme, although large demonstration projects would probably be located in the least developed countries.

The complexity of the energy system, and the size of the infrastructure, means the analogy with the original Apollo goal is not that close. But the simple idea underneath it is easy enough to grasp. Unless and until renewable energy is demonstrably cheaper than burning coal, it will not advance at the rate needed to meet the IPCC’s targets.

It is not clear how near the programme is to securing international support. There were hopes of launching it during the UN Climate Summit in September 2014 but that meeting came and went without any official word. Some elements of the programme are discernible, though, in the details of the surprise US-China agreement on emissions targets announced in November. It envisages more funding for R&D for renewable energy, energy efficiency, and for new pilot projects for carbon capture and storage.

There is clearly still some way to go in translating any bilateral R&D boost into broader agreement to boost spending, though. And it may be difficult to mobilise support for the Apollo initiative in a field where, oddly for a civilisation utterly dependent on energy, all potential sources have both vociferous critics and uncritical supporters. One prominent solar power advocate, Jeremy Leggett of UK company Solar Century, suggests that the new programme was unnecessary because, “Things are moving at a speed that is taking people by complete surprise (including the solar industry) without an Apollo project, and indeed in the face of the energy incumbency's strong efforts to torpedo our progress”. He means the promotion of fracking and shale gas in the face of the shift in solar’s marginal costs to make it competitive in many more parts of the world. This combines with its potential for distributed supply in regions with little or no existing energy infrastructure, such as parts of sub-Saharan Africa, to make it very widely applicable. According to an analysis from AllianceBernstein last April, “solar is now cheap enough that it competes with oil, kerosene and liquid natural gas in developing markets”, and this is unprecedented.

But does that mean there are not parts of the world energy system that could benefit from more R&D? Not necessarily. Bill Gates, one of the leading lights of the American Energy Innovation Council, aligns with King, arguing that “a key element to get an energy breakthrough is more basic research. And that requires the government to take the lead. Only when that research is pointing towards a product then we can expect the private sector to kick in”.

And a breakthrough, if that is needed, may be harder than it looks, according to a recent reflection on Google’s unsuccessful effort to engineer an energy breakthrough that would produce electricity more cheaply than burning coal. Ross Konigstein and David Fork, who were involved in that programme, write in IEEE Spectrum that there is still an outstanding need for a “distributed, dispatchable” – meaning you can get it where you want it, when you want it – power source that is cheaper than any fossil-based alternative, and for carbon storage technologies so good they are disruptive. If so, then if King’s Apollo programme, or something like it, does not materialise, then maybe we are not really serious about addressing carbon emissions from our energy industries.

Further reading

David King and Richard Layard. We need a new Apollo mission to harness the sun’s power. Financial Times, Aug 1, 2013.

Aidan Rhodes, Jim Skea and Matthew Hannon, The Global Surge in Energy Innovation. Energies, 2014, 7, 5601-5623. (doi:10.3390/en7095601)

Ross Konigstein and David Falk. What would it really take to reverse climate change? – Today’s renewable energy technologies won’t save us. So what will? IEEE Spectrum, 18 Nov 2014