The Energy Transition Needs A Structured Innovation Process

All of us are at present, caught up in the terrible spread of the Coronavirus (COVID-19). It is hard to think about other things when such societal and economic impact is hitting each of us every day.

In this period of such disruption, we do need to hang onto our beliefs, objectives, and goals, both short and long term. We are at a real point where we will be reshaping our economies, it is unlikely we will return to the ‘old’ normal.

Although we feel trapped in the present, worried over daily events and what they might mean, we must look beyond, we do need to look towards the future, to recognize there are challenges ahead but equally opportunities.

There is undoubtedly a time to find ways to come together. In recent years communities have become more polarized in their opinions, political positions, and choosing what to believe it. It is getting hard as truth is getting “blurred” more with this, often in such conflicting news.

A fact none of us can ignore is the planet, our world is undergoing significant change, and this is so much human-made. We can’t seemingly escape from daily occurrences of floods, famine, disease, and fires.

So far, 2020 has been a terrible year, the bushfires of Australia, the floods across many countries, the lack of rain, and the general “stirring” of mother nature. It seems mother nature is fighting back; it wants to bring the planet back into a balance.

One of our most significant challenges is to stabilize global mean temperatures.

To get to these goals of stabilizing global temperatures, we must stop the emissions of CO2 in our activities. Stopping CO2 emissions needs us, collectively, to look at our current energy services, our industrial production methods but also our land use and agricultural practices. In short, we have to redesign everything to approach zero net emissions of CO2. We have set ourselves the date of 2050 to achieve this, at present, we are already lagging on this.

We face some real challenges, so much of what we do is difficult-to decarbonize. So much of our economic activity, generate emissions that are unabated, as we have built our needs around energy services that have been utterly reliant on fossil fuels over generations. Fossil fuel is the big emitters of all greenhouse gases, and we have become reliant on it as our source of primary energy. Our energy sources need radically changing to building our future on clean energy, generated by fossil-free energy sources.

We cannot merely rip up what we have; we must come (quickly) to terms with those long-lived infrastructures built today, for better or worse, as these will still shape much of our future over these next critical thirty years. We must find imaginative solutions to adapt these to reduce emissions or be reliant on fossil- generating sources.

We need ingenuity in our thinking

We have to get to a net-zero emissions energy system as quickly as we can. For that, we require ingenuity in our abilities to break through present seemingly difficult barriers in technologies, and this calls for breakthrough innovation.  Over the next thirty years, we need to strive towards this net-zero emissions energy system or certainly get as close as we can. The “baseline” of 80% reductions by 2050 is the minimum target, but that requires nearly the same amount of ingenuity in new technology, with the possible “lag” to 100% as likely to be more to do with scale and deployment. Once you get past a “tipping point,” the momentum takes over.

The importance of innovation is across the board.

Innovation is required in all areas of research, development, demonstration, and deployment, to have equal focus. The challenge we presently have is that much of the specific technologies still need to be validated as we have many of the solutions already at hand. The issues are the future placement, configurations, and scaling beyond their present position is mostly the uncertain parts. Often the question is how and when do we undertake the changes and identifying the costs associated with these. When do we ramp up and scale in a competitive marketplace

Regretfully we are still in the chase for “individual defining technologies” that give a competitive advantage.

This chase to be different, to dominate, is partly needed but has to be balanced with a global, urgent need, not merely personal gain. We are dealing with global issues. It will be a finite number of solutions that will eventually emerge the winners. As we still are needlessly chasing incremental improvements or providing convincing business cases, we are losing significant time in energy solutions. We need to shift our validation into implementation and then refinement, through innovation.

What we need to have clarified are some primary objectives and clear pathways for all to work towards.

This pathway design needs to state a robust, reliable, and affordable net-zero emissions energy system in clear stages of transition, say 2029, 2039, and 2049. These are not just “desired points”; they are essential points. This period, up to 2029, must be all about researching, developing, demonstrating, and successfully learning from the deployment and scaling up. In any innovation process, these “proof points” become “go / no go” decisions. The question of who makes those calls becomes a real focus of determining at the next COP26 meeting, to be (hopefully) held in the UK in November 2020.

The innovation process becomes a clearly defined and well-disciplined one; it has to be.

We are presently wasting much of our innovation efforts on incremental improvements to keep existing limping along, keeping fossil related vested interests to take us away from that ultimate goal of a net-zero emissions energy system by 2050.  So much defense of working on “bridging” while we work on the future is partly laudable. Still, it is like the smoker’s lobby; it takes us away from ‘addictive behavior’ from the (inability) ability to move beyond the fossil versus renewable energy arguments in this case.

When there is an argument that fossil fuel is needed, then innovation needs to invest to break that down. At present, we have some very hard-to-abate (overcome) areas of aviation, long-distance transportation and shipping, production of carbon-intensive structural materials such as steel and cement, and then pharmaceutical and agricultural needs. These sectors need solutions that change the present dependence on fossil fuel burning for the feedstocks or the necessary generating high-temperature heat that come from coal or gas.

Shifting energy sourcing in the Industrial sector

Today industrial companies produce 25% of our GDP, but their emissions also account for about 28% of global greenhouse emissions. We must find ways to (totally) decarbonize industrial activities and our transportation systems. Today as in the future, cement, steel, ammonia, and ethylene are commodity products where cost is the decisive factor. The willingness to pay more is not there and not for the foreseeable future, and any new solution has to ‘account’ for this reality.

When we know the broad working parameters, then the search for innovation works.

When we have a set of targets to work towards and improve upon, we have a better chance of innovation that builds on the existing in more productive and inventive ways; that is, innovations task, in a nutshell.

We need to continually recognize that the energy system is undoubtedly complex. We need to build out our knowledge. The more we know about the economics and the highly integrated industrial or network processes or systems, the better for knowing how innovation can improve on the existing in productive and effective ways.

We need to ‘account’ for the recognition of longer lifetime (initial) decisions within the energy system or have a greater appreciation of what those costly refits or rebuilds, gives more significant consideration in new technology and time scales.

We need to energize the debate and bring innovation to the fore in offering ‘compelling’ solutions

Innovation must have a compelling business case that recognizes the factors that inhibit change and offer solutions that improve on the existing.

What we must do today is energize the debate, seek out a clarification of the pathway forward. How we make, move, store, and use energy that continually drives us towards the net-zero emissions target by 2050.

To do this, we must avoid the innovation emissions cul-de-sac.

If we continue to “turn towards” fossil fuels as the only viable option, we will never get to the net-zero emissions by 2050; We are caught in an innovation cul-de-sac. The limits of our current technology and the needs of the developing world we presently seem utterly reliant on fossil fuels. Carbon-free energy is not just our goal; it is our needed objective and mission. We have promising ‘pockets’ of discovery, validation, or resolving scaling obstacles. What is not occurring fast enough is designing the new energy system in scale that addresses the climate challenge. We must push towards a different energy future based on renewables and clean energy. No ‘u-turns or dead-ends, lets map our innovation to a carbon-free energy system now.

We must resolve the barriers to deep decarbonization.

Our innovation focus should be well focused on this- “to decarbonize” as the central innovation focal point. The role of innovation is not just in providing technology solutions but to design consumer propositions, develop market designs, business models, and system solution in definition and design.

We need innovation to drive change and behavior.

Unleashing innovation at the focal point of decarbonization (of everything) moves us towards the goals of net-zero emissions. We need to offer a deeper understanding of how the different parts of the energy system need to interact, and that requires a “whole system approach.” This massive undertaking towards decarbonizing the world needs us all to change our habits and present behaviors. We are in a time of reflection, as we look towards a different future we must change the way we value and appreciate what is around us.

The need is to bring innovation to the fore in the energy transition.

We need to recognize if we are aiming for Net-Zero that this narrows the pathways for the future energy systems and what gets installed. Net-zero leaves little slack or counter-argument, and it is decarbonization that is the focal point.

My contribution, however small, is to raise innovative thinking in the energy transition

I have increasingly been building my energy understanding and slowly knowledge sharing, initially through my dedicated energy transition posting site with a tag line of “a transition in all our lives.”

We must support innovation and explain that its deployment is working to cover the whole portfolio of low carbon energy conversions for electricity, as essential. The ultimate objective is we stay always focused on moving towards a net-zero carbon energy system, dominating final energy use in 2040 to 2050 eventually, or have n unstoppable moment as the only supportable solution in town by Governments, investors, and market players.

We need to clarify core actions, determine pathways of future ambition, and recognize some of the “costs to pay” in society. Industry investors will have measures that place higher costs or “force” social change.

Good Innovation can be the catalyst for this energy change, but it needs to establish its position in any shift to net-zero emissions. That is, innovation must become “front and center”.

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