Dr Mark Williamson, Director of Innovation at the Carbon Trust, examines the multi-billion-pound opportunities presented by the move to a low-carbon economy
Low-cost ?organic? solar cells made from plastic; giant tidal turbine blades inspired by aviation design; biofuels made from algae rather than food crops ? these are just some of the exciting technologies UK companies are working on to tackle climate change and play a part in one of the world?s most dynamic and rapidly growing markets.
Dr Mark Williamson
Unfortunately, there is no one ?silver bullet? solution that can cut our carbon emissions to the extent required to combat climate change, while still meeting our energy requirements. We need a portfolio of different solutions across the economy to ensure that we can generate lowcost clean energy and use it much more efficiently.
The move to a low-carbon economy will require significant investment, but it will also present attractive economic opportunities for those countries and companies that gain leadership positions. In the growing global market for low-carbon solutions, different countries will take the lead in developing technologies, based on their local skills, natural resources and energy needs.
The UK has significant competitive advantage in a number of low-carbon technologies and the Carbon Trust is working to support innovation in clean technology as part of its mission to accelerate the move to a low-carbon economy. We take a unique approach and have supported the development of hundreds of different innovative low-carbon technologies and companies since 2001.
Markets are successful in encouraging innovation where there is strong consumer demand, for example in the automotive sector or in mobile telephony. However, climate change is a long-term societal challenge and the market for low-carbon solutions has rather different characteristics. For example, there is significant uncertainty about the future value of low-carbon solutions, due to their dependence on regulation and expectations about the future carbon price. They have to compete against well-established existing technologies and normally have higher upfront costs. New energy technologies also have long development timescales and require very significant capital investment to get to market.
Unlike cars or mobile phones, such technologies are often difficult to differentiate from each other as they typically generate, or reduce the use of, a commodity product, such as electricity. These factors are all potential disincentives to innovation and targeted action is therefore required to encourage the necessary activity. Left to its own devices, the market will almost certainly not deliver a low-carbon economy as fast as we need it.
This is where the Carbon Trust comes in. Our hands-on experience has highlighted the many and varied challenges and associated actions that need to be taken to underpin low-carbon innovation and support technologies on their journey to market. The conventional view of innovation begins with academics coming up with a breakthrough idea; after building a laboratory scale version, the invention, if successful, then goes through sub-scale and full-scale prototypes, early demonstration models, various stages of market testing and finally mass-market roll-out.
However, our experience has shown that this ?technology journey? is only one part of the overall innovation challenge. Of equal importance is the ?company journey? which takes place in parallel. Technology breakthroughs typically emerge from small teams. To commercialise the technology, the company needs to bring on board the right mix of commercial and technical skills, build successful partnerships, protect its intellectual property and, most importantly, obtain investment at various appropriate stages along the way.
Breakthrough technologies also need to navigate an associated ?market journey?, to ensure that barriers to market development are addressed. These might include supply chain uncertainty in a particular market and a lack of consumer awareness and understanding of the need for the new technology. Finally, alongside the technology, company and market journeys, there needs to be an associated ?regulatory journey?. Disruptive technologies will often come up against regulation that actively discourages their development; for example, traditional electricity market regulation favours large-scale generators, such as coal or gas plants, over smaller distributed generators, such as wind or solar installations.
In their early years, new low-carbon technologies need regulatory support, for example through mechanisms such as the Renewables Obligation for electricity in the UK. However, these mechanisms also need to encourage costs to come down in the longer term; low-carbon solutions will eventually compete without the need for subsidies, especially as the cost of conventional energy sources continues to rise.
THE UK: A HUB OF LOW-CARBON INNOVATION
The UK has significant competitive advantage in various areas of clean technology and, by exploiting these, we have the potential to play a global leadership role in carbon reduction, capture economic advantage for the UK and become a new hub of low-carbon innovation. For example, we have extensive offshore engineering heritage, significant natural wind and wave resources and a strong academic base with world-class research capabilities in relevant areas.
Let?s take the UK?s marine energy expertise as an example. Our natural wave and tidal resources could be used to provide up to 20% of the UK?s current electricity needs and has the potential to cut carbon dioxide by tens of millions of tonnes. The UK also has more marine energy device developers than any other country. The Carbon Trust?s ?Future Marine Energy? report estimated that the global value of worldwide electricity revenues from wave and tidal stream projects could be between £60-£190bn a year.
The Carbon Trust?s Marine Energy Accelerator aims to accelerate progress in cost reduction for wave and tidal stream energy technologies. The latest phase of activity focuses on the development of component technologies which could reduce the cost of marine energy by 20% by 2020. The Carbon Trust is partnering with leading academic and industrial groups that bring expertise from outside the marine energy field.
The UK?s strong academic base is also being leveraged to develop technologies that could underpin increased uptake of advanced biofuels that don?t compete with food crops. In particular, Carbon Trust analysis suggests that the UK has expertise that could allow us to be world leaders in development of algae biofuels. Algae could deliver six to 10 times more energy per hectare than conventional cropland biofuels, while reducing carbon emissions by up to 80% relative to fossil fuels. Initial forecasts suggest that algae-based biofuels could replace over 70 billion litres of fossil-derived fuels used worldwide annually by 2030 (equivalent to 12% of annual global jet fuel consumption or 6% of road transport diesel). This would equate to an annual carbon saving of over 160 million tonnes of CO2 globally and a market value of over £15bn.
To support the commercialisation of algae as a biofuel, the Carbon Trust has launched the Algae Biofuels Challenge with an ambitious mission: to commercialise the use of algae biofuel as an alternative to fossil-based oil by 2020. There are two phases to the Challenge. Phase one will provide grant funding for research across areas including the selection of suitable microalgae strains for open-pond production, maximising algae oil content and biomass yield, maximising solar conversion efficiency, sustained algae cultivation and design, and engineering of mass-culture systems. Phase two will focus on scaling up and integrating the processes developed in phase one and testing the research outputs, eg algae strains.
Another potential area where the UK has distinctive capabilities is in the area of plastic electronics, which could be used as the basis for a new generation of cheaper solar cells. Solar power also has enormous potential to provide renewable electricity, even in a cloudy country such as the UK. However, the current generation of solar panels, based on silicon, remain far too expensive and are unlikely to be cost-effective even in the medium term. The Carbon Trust is working on development of the next generation of solar power, partnering with Cambridge University and TTP to develop ?organic? plastic cells which have the potential to be manufactured cheaply and ultimately deliver solar products that could compete on cost with conventional sources of electricity.
INVESTING IN THE FUTURE
Whether through algae, marine energy or advanced solar power, it is vital that we find cost-effective and sustainable alternatives to fossil fuels for power and transport to deliver the deep cuts in carbon emissions necessary to tackle climate change. With the right policies and investment we can harness the UK?s unique assets to generate valuable intellectual property, develop new export markets, build supply chains and create hundreds of thousands of new ?green collar? jobs across the UK.
By combining the UK?s undoubted expertise in these areas with our unique knowledge and experience of commercialising early stage low-carbon technologies, the Carbon Trust hopes to make a significant contribution to the challenge and allow the UK to capitalise on the multi-billion-pound opportunity presented by the move to a global low-carbon economy.
For more information, visit:
Added the 27 August 2009 in category Innovation UK Vol5-1