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Filling the GAP

By Dave Elliott

A group of UK notables, including Sir David King, Lord John Browne, Lord Nicholas Stern and Lord Martin Ryle, has launched a proposal for a 10 year Global Apollo Programme of science-led research and development (R&D) to develop clean energy technology fast to combat climate change. One of the other proposers, former Cabinet Secretary Lord O’Donnell, told BBC News: ‘People never believed we could put a man on the Moon – but we did. People don’t believe we can solve climate change – but we have no choice.’

In what has been seen as a $150bn technology push approach, focused on RD&D (R&D plus demonstration), the proposal calls for ‘a major scientific and technological programme of research, using the best minds in the world and the best science’, comparable in scale and scope to a unified international space programme. It would be focused on renewables (PV solar especially), energy storage and transmission systems. The other three priority choices, nuclear, Carbon Capture and Storage and energy efficiency, were, they felt, already well serviced. Ex-UK Chief Scientist Sir David King said ‘what we need to do is create clean energy that is less costly than fossil energy, and once we get to that point, we’re winning all battles.’

The proposal says ‘worldwide, publicly-funded RD&D on renewable energy is under 2% of the total of publicly funded research and development – only around $6 billion in total. This is hardly commensurate with the gravity of the threat we face. So we need a quite new priority for the discovery of new, cheaper ways to produce, store and distribute clean energy. At the same time it is right to subsidise the supply of clean energy until its cost comes down. But the $6 billion that governments spend on renewable RD&D is far too low. It compares poorly with the $101 billion spent worldwide on production subsidies for renewables, not to mention the counterproductive subsidies for fossil fuel energy (totalling $550 billion). Effective cost reduction requires not only the wider deployment of existing clean technology but also, critically, the scientific development of new technologies’.

The aim would be to ask governments topledge to spend an annual average of 0.02% of GDP as public expenditure on the Programme from 2016 to 2025. The money will be spent according to the country’s own discretion. We hope all major countries will join.’

It certainly sounds exciting. Prof. Marin Rees said: ‘I find it hard to imagine anything more inspiring for engineers than to provide clean energy for the world.’ But not everyone thought the focus on R&D (or even RD&D) was right: it gave the impression that renewables were undeveloped, and lab based, whereas many were now competitive and expanding in the market place fast. PV solar lobbyist and green entrepreneur Jeremy Leggett said we have a market process in train that we just have to accelerate, it’s already happening’:

The GAP proposal document agreed that prices were falling, as the new options moved down their learning curves, and PV was doing best (with a learning curve slope of 17%, compared to 9% for offshore wind and 7% for onshore wind), and so should be favoured. But it says that market-led growth, supported by production subsidies, was not enough: more RD&D was also needed to speed things up: ‘if fundamental breakthroughs are added to learning by doing, the combination can produce even more rapid falls in cost’.

However, it’s not clear if RD&D does actually speed up learning and cost reduction: most innovation theories see the growth of market volume as doing that. Lab-based R&D tends to throw up radical new options, with new learning curves, although incremental technical improvements can also be made. But that usually needs wider market involvement – and support. Prof. Jim Watson, from UKERC, said ‘the report’s emphasis on diverting funding away from deployment towards R,D&D risks creating a false dichotomy. The evidence on successful low carbon technologies such as wind and solar shows that both forms of support have been essential – and there is often a symbiotic relationship between them’:

It’s also perhaps worth pointing out that NASA’s original Apollo space mission (which had a clear aim – to get a US man on the moon first) was more about applied technology and engineering than science, with much cross-over from military rocket experience and aeronautics expertise, all carried out within a non-market framework. But putting theory and definitional quibbles aside, it’s certainly true that, in general, more funding of all types for renewables would be helpful, and is long overdue, as was made clear in this forceful overview:   It stresses that ‘within UK energy R&D, priority is increasingly being given to nuclear power projects over renewables.’

The GAP proposal, perhaps rather coyly, stays clear of that issue, simply saying that nuclear (and CCS) already enjoy a ‘high level of research effort’, and oddly also includes energy efficiency in that category. It quotes global public R&D support level as being $4.2 billion for nuclear fission, well ahead of efficiency at $2.1bn and CCS and $1.3bn. However is does make clear that the current heavy emphasis on fossil energy is inappropriate, and on that we can all agree, though (fossil) CCS remains a contentious issue.

With these large policy issues in mind, some say the real problems are political, not technological and it all comes down to having the power to make change possible, with the oil giants still calling the shots:

While some hope that a technology push approach may change the balance of power,in reality, technological innovation may not be the main issue. That seems to be true in practical terms. An interesting study of the impact of ‘innovation prizes’ and challenge competitions, albeit in a development context, concluded that in most cases the factors limiting access to cleaner and more efficient energy supply are at the level of market formation, financing and policy. The challenges are not primarily of a technical/engineering nature’.

Maybe that’s where the money should go, to support practical deployment, rather than to high tech innovation? Or do we need both?

Certainly there are major challenges ahead and it’s not clear if the Apollo programme, as currently formulated, can meet them. That’s a gloomy view that emerged from Carbon Brief: Neither making clean energy cheaper than new coal, nor adding more new clean energy capacity than fossil fuels will dent the large existing fleet of dirty power plants. Indeed, even as renewables keep breaking records their global share of power output has barely changed in a quarter-century’. The GAP proposal recognizes the problem, but simply says‘this reinforces the need for renewables to expand beyond just contributing to additional capacity. They have to displace a significant fraction of the existing fossil fuel-based capacity. This requires more radical falls in their cost of production’.

Quite a challenge. You could ask why do they have to be cheaper than dirty fuels? Shouldn’t we be imposing carbon costs more effectively on the latter? Or setting ambitious renewables and efficiency targets. Or doing both – pushing and pulling.

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