The Need for Accelerated Innovation in Renewable Energy

Not surprisingly, innovation in clean technologies is a common theme among many of the events. In most models of a low-carbon future, innovation is assumed to occur and to reduce costs over time. There has been less focus on how to ensure this innovation takes place and is most effective. That is the focus of WRI’s new working paper, Two Degrees of Innovation: How to Seize the Opportunities in Low-Carbon Power.

While increasing the deployment of these technologies will help drive down the cost, it will not automatically bring the performance improvements, like reduced environmental impact, that we also need. As seen in the recent concerns about pollution from solar panel manufacturing in China, it is important for regulators to work with these technologies to reduce the waste streams, improve their resource efficiency, and limit their impact overall. Innovation can improve performance by:

Making low-carbon power generation more efficient. For example, innovation that improves the efficiency of photovoltaic panels reduces the amount of land surface that is necessary for utility-scale solar-powered electricity generation. Innovation in second-generation cellulosic ethanol reduces the amount of arable land, water, and fertilizer needed to grow crops for biofuel.

Making renewable energy technologies safer and higher quality. For example, innovation that strengthens wind turbines to better withstand strong winds, reduces their noise, and extends their lifespan increases their safety and makes it easier to live near them.

Making sure low-carbon power generation is effectively reducing net lifecycle GHG emissions. For example, adding low-carbon power to the grid through a new concentrating solar power plant or a new wind farm only makes a difference in pollution if the operator of the grid chooses power down a fossil fuel power plant – and that in turn requires innovations in power storage and the grid connection equipment used by the renewable technologies.

This need to consider innovation in performance as well as cost points to the importance of considering the whole innovation ecosystem. One element of a healthy ecosystem is a market – such as those created by renewable portfolio standards – that drives down cost. But just as important is a regulatory environment that addresses the emerging challenges that come with new technologies, like new waste streams. Similarly, building the competence of the work force in this sector to address health and human safety and ecosystem protection is critical to making gains in environmental performance and public acceptance. As policymakers consider the seven functions of a healthy innovation ecosystem outlined in WRI’s research, they have the opportunity to accelerate both the necessary cost reductions and the critical performance improvements in low-carbon technologies.

Functions of a Healthy Innovation Ecosystem

Creating and sharing new knowledge Bringing new knowledge to the sector from all sources and ensuring that knowledge spreads effectively.
Building competence Competence building—creating a skilled labor force—is fundamental.
Creating collaborative networks Networks are a fundamental tool for knowledge dissemination and creating the contacts innovators need to be successful.
Developing infrastructure Innovation in this sector requires significant public infrastructure.
Providing finance Innovators often need access to capital in order to realize their solutions, whether they are a new manufacturing process or a different wind farm configuration.
Establishing governance and the regulatory environment An innovation process is more likely to succeed when the rules of the game are clear and consistent.
Creating markets Policymakers have a strong hand in creating the power market and have a wide range of tools, from public awareness to mandates to government procurement.

WRI has designed a framework to help policymakers build or strengthen a dynamic innovation ecosystem in the low-carbon power sector. This framework is summarized in a recent piece on innovation and also described at length in WRI’s new working paper, Two Degrees of Innovation: How to Seize the Opportunities in Low-Carbon Power.
No Time to Waste

Time is of essence to embrace a clean technology revolution driven by innovation. The ever-increasing annual measures of CO2 in the atmosphere and the mounting evidence of ongoing fundamental climate changes suggest the window for transformation is very small.2 In addition to the climate and environmental benefits, governments and the private sector can achieve additional economic growth, energy security, and development benefits from investing in innovation. The faster we accelerate clean technology innovation, the sooner all these benefits will be realized.

Tom Kerr, Technology Roadmap: Carbon capture and storage, Technology Roadmaps (Paris, France: International Energy Agency, 2009),; Paolo Frankl et al., Technology Roadmap: Solar photovoltaic energy, Technology Roadmaps (Paris, France: International Energy Agency, 2010),; Hugo Chandler, Technology Roadmap: Wind Energy, Technology Roadmaps (Paris, France: International Energy Agency, 2009),

This piece was written with Pablo Torres, Intern at the World Resources Institute.