75% of what is required to transition to “Net zero Emissions” hasn’t been invented or still requires massive innovation.

The IEA put out a report in July that received less attention that it deserves.  Mostly likely because it features a strong dose of reality for those that believe just because wind and solar have dropped in price and that Tesla is now worth a gazillion dollars that the path to an electrified and emission free future is immediately before us.  It is not.  The gap between mature technologies that we can deploy and scale today and what we need to move to a net zero future is, according to the IEA, about 75% and “there is a stark disconnect between these high-profile pledges and the current state of clean energy technology.”

A key focus of the report is the difference between invention and innovation and detailing how they are not the same thing. Just because something has been invented does not mean it automatically will have a material impact. Without a massive amount of related innovation or what many of us with more of an engineering focus vs. pure science might think of as commercialization much of the benefit of these inventions will remain a distant promise.

Energy in particular is an industry with very long cycles of innovation, commercialization and deployment. It took coal hundreds of years to displace wood in many applications, decades for oil to displace coal, and it will take decades for new energy resources to displace the current mix of coal, oil and gas that provides more than 80% of the worlds current energy. The report points out this challenge noting that, “The fastest energy-related examples in recent decades include consumer products like LEDs and lithium ion batteries, which took 10-30 years to go from the first prototype to the mass market.”

I like the chart below that by applying their four stages of innovation, Prototype, Demonstration, Early Adoption, and Mature, to emerging energy technology depicts how the IEA arrived at their 75% gap conclusion. Important to note that the timescale here is indeed decades with needed reductions in CO2 emissions not being realized until 2070.

I have included the IEA’s description of each category below with the chart which includes some good examples for each category.

  • Prototype: A concept is developed into a design, and then into a prototype for a new device (e.g. a furnace that produces steel with pure hydrogen instead of coal).
  • Demonstration: The first examples of a new technology are introduced at the size of a full-scale commercial unit (e.g. a system that captures CO2 emissions from cement plants).
  • Early adoption: At this stage, there is still a cost and performance gap with established technologies, which policy attention must address (e.g. electric and hydrogen-powered cars).
  • Mature: As deployment progresses, the product moves into the mainstream as a common choice for new purchases (e.g. hydropower turbines).

As a companion piece to the report the IEA has provided a Clean Energy Technology Guide of the over 400 clean energy technologies they are tracking along this maturity path with good summaries of the current state of development. The grading system used is a builds on the four main categories with a 10 point system to rank and stack the technologies in a comparative manner. Far from perfect and instantly out of date for sure, but a great start at understanding just how much work is going on and how far along each area has advanced.

The point of this post is that we have a lot of work to do. If everyone that is so concerned about climate change would pick up an assignment and get to work that would be helpful. More protests of pipelines, more pledges to shut down the oil and gas industry, or more traipsing around in dramatic costumes claiming we are all going extinct, those not so much. Let’s go get to work!

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