From the drawing board to the market – a long road

Access to energy is vital if people and economies are to thrive. At the same time, we need to alter our energy use so that it does not jeopardise our health and our environment. The way we produce and consume energy changes slowly, however. More than 80% of the energy we use is still produced from fossil fuels, a level that has remained stubbornly the same for the past three decades. But change is happening, driven by a wealth of research worldwide. Today the IEA launches the results of an initiative designed to present key research under way in its international Technology Collaboration Programme (TCP).

The energy sector is continuously in flux, as governments encourage or require technological change to meet overriding energy security and environmental objectives. Without government policy to foster energy efficiency and scale up the use of renewables for power generation, in particular,  CO2 emissions from the energy sector would be higher.

Technological change can be a long drawn-out process, however. The process of conceiving new products or processes and guiding them all the way from the lab to the market can take decades. For example, solar PV cells were first demonstrated in the 1950s in the United States by Bell Labs. It wasn’t until 2015 that solar PV reached as much as 1% of global electricity generation.

Technology innovation is key to a clean and resilient energy future

Continued and rapid energy technology innovation is crucial for governments to build a more secure and sustainable energy system that allows us to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions in the long term. It is vital to make progress on clean energy technologies such as renewables, batteries, hydrogen, bioenergy and carbon capture, utilisation and storage (CCUS). To map out such technology needs, and help governments and industry in navigating the complexities of long-term technology and policy choices, the IEA published a major new ETP Special Report on Clean Energy Innovation on 2 July as part of its Energy Technology Perspectives series. This report highlights the renewed importance of sustaining innovation and finding new opportunities in the energy business landscape disrupted by Covid-19.

The innovation process demands engagement from a wide range of stakeholders with aligned interests and a broad variety of functions. Governments play a particularly important role in energy technology R&D by defining policies and funding them. Representatives from government, industry, academia, non-governmental organisations and civil society all then have parts to play in helping new technologies see the light of day. By bringing them together to share expertise and progress, international collaboration programmes can be critical facilitators that accelerate clean energy technology innovation.

The Technology Collaboration Programme by the IEA is a critical facilitator of global R&D

There is a vast landscape of mechanisms and partnerships to support international collaboration on energy technology R&D and innovation. The Technology Collaboration Programme (TCP) by the IEA stands out for its longevity and breadth of energy sectors and technologies. The IEA has a long history of fostering international energy technology collaboration. The multilateral TCP mechanism was established by the IEA in 1975 with the belief that the future of energy security and sustainability begins with global collaboration.

The programme today is made up of thousands of government, academic and industry experts in 55 countries dedicated to advancing common research and applying specific energy technologies. There are 38 technology collaborations in several technology or sector categories: energy efficiency end-use technologies (buildings, transport, industry and electricity); renewable energy and hydrogen; fossil energies; fusion power; and cross-cutting issues. These technology collaborations are a critical, member-driven part of the IEA family but are functionally and legally autonomous from the IEA Secretariat. The breadth of analytical expertise in the TCP is a unique asset in the global transition to a clean energy future.

Over the past 45 years, TCP activities have produced a range of noteworthy results including inventions, pilot plants, demonstration projects, databases and standards. In addition to physical products, TCP participants have generated substantial information and data, disseminated via scientific publications, guidebooks, databases and policy papers. The TCPs carry out their research projects either directly within their own membership, or in conjunction with broader international initiatives such as the European Commission and Mission Innovation.

Countries benefit from participation in this mechanism as the results inform their national energy technology objectives and priorities. The results also greatly contribute to the work of the IEA Secretariat, feeding into a variety of its analyses and outputs. The ETP Special Report on Clean Energy Innovation, for example, is accompanied by the launch of an ETP Clean Energy Technology Guide that maps out the level of maturity of over 400 new and emerging technologies. It was developed by the IEA Secretariat in collaboration with numerous stakeholders, including from within the TCPs.

Today in the Lab – Tomorrow in Energy?

Many promising technologies in the laboratory today might help shape the future energy market directly (through their deployment) or indirectly (through fostering innovation in related energy technologies). The TCPs carry out a lot of related basic research, and not all technologies and mechanisms being researched will make it to the energy market in the end. But such is the nature of innovation: it is a non-linear process that benefits from success stories as well as from the lessons that failures offer. That is why the work of the TCPs, as well as of all researchers, is critical to making our energy sector cleaner and more resilient.

To inform decision makers in government and industry – as well as the broader public – about the broad scope of research carried out in the TCP network, the IEA launches today the results of Today in the Lab – Tomorrow in Energy?, an initiative designed to shine a spotlight on research projects under development in the TCPs. To participate in this initiative, the 38 collaborations in the TCP network were invited to submit a brief summary of current research projects based on the following criteria:

  • easy to communicate through social media
  • funded with testing under way
  • pre-commercial (basic and applied research)
  • addressing key energy policy concerns, such as sustainability and energy security
  • conducted within the wider TCP network and/or in conjunction with other international initiatives

The IEA Secretariat received 53 submissions, representing technologies across all sectors, and pre-selected the projects that fulfilled the set criteria. The IEA Committee on Energy Research and Technology (CERT) was then asked to choose, via an online survey, the projects they considered best met the same criteria.

Not all TCP collaborations directly undertake laboratory research, development and demonstration (RD&D). Some focus on stakeholder dialogue and events, innovation analysis (technology policy and markets), and capacity building. The one thing they all have in common is the desire to raise awareness of the contribution that their technologies and systems can make in reaching climate and energy goals. As such, the remaining project submissions that did not meet the selection criteria are recognised as important key projects in their own right and will be made available online soon.

The six projects selected by the CERT are outlined below. The IEA Secretariat and the IEA Committee on Energy Research and Technology hope that this initiative will not only win more recognition for the work of the TCPs from a broader audience but also help accelerate innovation and foster market deployment by bringing promising TCP research projects to the attention of decision-makers in government and industry.