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Renewable innovation – and jobs

By Dave Elliott

IRENA, the International Renewable Energy Agency, has looked at innovation options and potentials in the sustainable energy sector, in terms of what needs to be done to reduce global carbon emissions. It says that ‘energy efficiency and renewable energy have the potential to achieve 90% of the emissions reductions needed by 2050, with renewables accounting for two-thirds of primary energy supply in 2050’. At that point, wind and solar heat will lead at 15% each. However, in most cases, while some technical R&D may still be needed, innovations in business models, market designs, enabling infrastructure and systems operation, are equally crucial to achieve the energy transformation’.

IRENA suggests that ‘the main areas where more innovation is needed are those where, for institutional reasons, no significant pressure exists at present to innovate. For example, energy intensive industries are largely exempt from ambitious climate policies because of perceived competitiveness issues and potential carbon leakage. Bunker fuel use in aviation and marine shipping sectors is formally outside the national scope. The use of fuels as feedstock for plastics and other synthetic organic materials only results in CO2 emissions at the waste incineration stage, too late to prevent those emissions. In all these cases, the priority should be to create the appropriate innovation incentives, instead of simply focusing on technology R&D.’

IRENA identifies a number of technologies that it says could play important roles in the decarbonisation of the energy sector, which need further development before they are scaled up. For example, technologies enabling a high share of variable renewable power in electricity systems, such as inter-seasonal storage, advanced batteries and vehicle-to-grid systems, power-to-gas conversion, smart grids and super grids. It also looks to solar cooling with cold storage for developing countries especially, and it wants more attention to be given to new marine propulsion solutions. It also looks to the development of advanced biofuels, and biochemicals and biomaterials. It says biomass is ‘a big part of the renewable energy solutions, particularly for challenging sectors like transport and industry… But feedstock costs and logistics continue to be major challenges’.

According to IRENA, some well-established technologies like solar heating also need attention to help deploy them more widely, for example in industry, possibly in hybrid arrangements with heat pumps and biomass. And also for cooking. And finally it is keen on CO2 capture and storage (CCS) for cement clinker production, iron making, waste incineration and biomass processes.

Looking at the energy field overall, IRENA says that ‘one-third of the abatement potential by 2050 would come from four of the 110 technology options: wind power, solar PV, electric vehicles for passenger transport and saving the carbon stored during plastics production in the chemical industry’. And it claims that: ‘90% of the abatement potential would come from 33 of the technology options… in power, transport, buildings heating & cooling, and in industry, notably from the energy-intensive sectors of iron & steel, and chemical & cement production.’

So it looks to improvements in key sectors, with energy efficiency improvements seen as essential. However, it also notes that ‘one quarter of the potential incremental energy intensity improvements can be attributed to the accelerated deployment of renewable energy’, with cost reduction being a key area for innovation.

One of the outcomes of these efforts will be more employment. IRENA’s report on Renewable Energy and Jobs notes that there are nearly 10 million people working in the renewables sector globally at present, and it looks at the type of jobs and at access for women, via a workplace survey in the Middle East/North Africa. It says that ‘as the scales continue to tip in favour of renewables, we expect that the number of people working in the renewables sector could reach 24 million by 2030, more than offsetting fossil-fuel job losses and becoming a major economic driver around the world’.

IRENA’s new series of studies on local green energy job/skill needs takes the analysis further.

IRENA is pretty optimistic about the future of renewables and that view is shared by Bloomberg New Energy Finance. New Energy Outlook 2017, their latest long-term forecast, suggests that ‘the greening of the world’s electricity system is unstoppable, thanks to rapidly falling costs for solar and wind power, and a growing role for batteries, including those in electric vehicles, in balancing supply and demand’.

BNEF expect $7.4 trillion to be invested in new renewable energy plants by 2040, which is 72% of the $10.2 trillion that is projected to be spent on new power generation worldwide. Solar takes $2.8 trillion and sees a 14-fold jump in capacity. Wind draws $3.3 trillion and sees a fourfold increase in capacity. As a result, wind and solar will make up 48% of the world’s installed capacity and 34% of electricity generation by 2040, compared with just 12% and 5% now. Clearly acceleration will be the norm if this is to come about, and innovation will play a part in that.

What is not clear is which countries will lead in all this. The EU and US have led in the past, in terms of technical innovation, but further rapid progress may be slowed by their internal political conflicts, as Trump and BREXIT have their impacts. Germany remains a technical leader: although the US’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) programme held promise, Trump is cutting its funding. China has now taken over in terms of renewables capacity deployment, but lags somewhat on innovation. Japan has in the past been very innovative technologically, and may be so again as it tries to replace nuclear. But South Korea is a challenger and may soon step forward as an innovation leader in the energy sector given that it has now decided to abandon nuclear power and accelerate renewables. However, while Asia could well take a lead, around the world there is all to play for, with innovation, in the wider sense used by IRENA, offering opportunities for all to participate.  Even the UK!

One technical area that certainly needs attention is the provision of grid frequency stability as renewables expand – unlike conventional plants, few offer significant rotational inertia. I will be looking that in a post soon. Plenty to be getting on with there… as renewables boom across the world.*

*The pace of that change is startling. The latest study, from leading global energy consultants DNV GL, says that globally by 2050 wind and solar PV will each supply around 36% of electricity, from 9TW and 15TW respectively, while renewables in all will supply 85% of global electricity and just under 50% of global primary energy. And, going well beyond that, German Energy Watch Group and Finland’s LUT have produced a near 100% all electricity global 2050 scenario, while Jacobson et al at Stanford University have published an overview of their very ambitious 100% renewables for all energy by 2050 study covering 139 countries.

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