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Within the Energy Transition, the hunt is on for strong spillover potentials

Visual image IEA, headline paul4innovating.

Recently the IEA published an important document called “Energy Technology Perspective- Special Report on Clean Energy Innovation,” which has set about establishing technology families and their potential footprint in the low-carbon value chain.

This has been followed up by an even more extensive report, released on 10th September 2020, by the IEA called “Energy Technology Perspectives 2020

The report’s comprehensive analysis maps out the technologies needed to tackle emissions in all parts of the energy sector, including areas where technological progress is still lacking such as long-distance transport and heavy industries.

It shows the amount of emissions reductions that are required from electrification, hydrogen, bio-energy and carbon capture, utilization, and storage (CCUS). It also provides an assessment of emissions from existing infrastructure and what can be done to address them.

Within the work going into this report, the IEA has identified over 800 technology options that need to be further examined, explored, validated, and accelerated for the World to reach net-zero emissions by 2050. That is an awful lot of innovation to get us to a clean energy transition from where we are today.

The latest report is over 400 pages long and is framed as a guide book for all involved in the energy transition.

The report not only shows the scale of the challenge but also offers vital guidance for overcoming so many of the issues and challenges identified today. As anyone knows the more you explore innovation and what it is trying to resolve, the more complex it becomes.

The IEA initially grouped possible technology innovations into six families (taken from the initial report):

  1. Electrochemistry: modular cells for converting electrical energy into chemical energy and vice versa), this is explored more in this post
  2. CO2 capture where the processes to separate CO2 from industrial and power sector emissions or found in the air
  3. Heating and cooling exploring efficient and flexible designs for electrification
  4. Catalysis that generate more efficient industrial processes for converting biomass and CO2 to products
  5. Finding lightweight materials and their integration into wind energy and vehicles
  6. The digital integration between data and communication to make energy systems more flexible and efficient

The list at this time is not intended to be exhaustive but is looking to cover the solutions that hold the most promise, known today, for advancing value chains involving electrification, hydrogen and hydrogen-based fuels, CCUS, and bio-energy.

Others have high potentials such as ocean energy, net-zero building envelopes, and thermal and mechanical energy storage. To bring them to any form of fruition, they need to move into validation and then into larger deployments. Until they have this more significant demonstration and adoption of interest, turning them into a more commercially relevant environment of validation, beyond concept and small prototypes, they are concepts that need dedicated research, validation, application, and solutions.

The one that excites me is the spillover effects between batteries, fuel cells, and electrolyzers.

In this IEA report, the chapter dealing with the spillover effect became interesting to me. Let me summarize what I read and understood here, about the family within the electrochemical area that has three of the potential most essential solutions of batteries, fuel cells, and electrolyzers.

The value of the “spillover” of knowledge learning in any innovation has real value. The concept of “knowledge accumulated and “rapid sharing” in any development stage of new technologies can speed up learning and adoption for any global solutions that need to be adopted to achieve the transition to clean energy.

Spreading awareness of specific technology applications can have potential spillovers of learning to not just collaborators where relevant applications have similar solution profile needs. This sharing or spreading knowledge can reduce duplication in R&D efforts, bring down costs, generate further synergies, and accelerate innovation technology transfer.

There seems substantial potential gain from any sharing or this “spillover effect” in what the IEA has outlined within the electrochemical area. Batteries, fuel cells, and water electrolyzers are all electrochemical devices. They all offer the massive potential of storing this chemical energy in large quantities to aid electrification and work alongside the variable renewables of wind and solar.

The critical components of the Electrochemistry family can be shared.

The argument is that batteries, fuel cells, and electrolyzers share scientific principles, component design, and materials as well as manufacturing techniques that could benefit or advance the others within this grouping. These three technology solutions have a significant level of importance to rapidly bring down costs and take product solutions to market faster. All three solutions of batteries, fuel cells, and green hydrogen electrolyzers the market is indicating it wants and needs in scalable solutions as soon as possible. Can there be the level of synergies suggested across this electrochemistry family to resolve significant barriers today in scale, cost, and adoption to make the clean energy transition happen at faster speeds?

The question becomes one of the willingness to share.

Of course, if one organization is involved in the development of more than one of these technologies, the synergies are more likely to flow across them. Can a different model of collaboration in early R&D stages in some form of Electrochemical Energy Ecosystem collaboration be formed?  Can we build an ecosystem for collaboration that offers mutual benefit in the sharing of knowledge around this electrochemical family for faster understanding and adoption, and different synergies generated from this set of collaborative engagements?

The figure (IEA 2020. All rights reserved) below break down the cost-reduction potential for electrochemical devices by component category.

Who needs to investigate this?

The automotive industry is interested in all three or should be.  Manufacturers of energy solutions who understand the applications and the chemical companies involved in the development of components for batteries, fuel cells or electrolyzers to grow their market are all prime candidates to investigate and accelerate any potential spillovers between the three.

The critical need in all three technology solutions of batteries, fuel cells, and electrolyzers are cost reductions by finding joint component families of electrodes, membranes, and electrolytes as well as stack assembly and plant components. How can the advanced materials used, including precious metals and manufacturing techniques, have some form of harmonization or alternatives to the existing offerings?

The critical components are the polymer electrolyte membrane found in the PEM electrolyzers, in fuel cells, and Li-ion batteries.

Then you have the spillover benefits of vehicle and grid storage, the learning in the three of manufacturing and deployment as these become more competitive as scale “takes hold.”

I would love to have this wish

I wish, as a non-technical person, I could walk across to the R&D Lab, convene discussions between engineers, scientists, R&D developers, and experienced manufacturing personnel to explore these potential spillover benefits.  As an independent, I certainly would like to be the facilitator as the whole divergence and convergence around synergies and learning are “my mentoring bag.”

The potential within this seeking out mutual value does open the potential for new business opportunities, offering the possibility to extend the existing core to advance where the business of today can transform out. The whole challenge of the work-to-be-done to accelerate innovation, adoption, and deployment and build new growth businesses is terrifically exciting

I have written previously about the “Diffusion of Energy” where innovation needs to follow the characteristics of any innovation diffusion that yields 1) relative advantage, 2) compatibility, 3) tackle complexity, 4) accelerate trialability, and 5) offer observability into adoption.

The way the IEA has grouped selected technology families does offer a fresh approach to evaluate the value of innovation within the energy transition to clean energy solutions. They plan to follow up on this recent report in late 2020 with a flagship report to delve even further into this. I await with real interest

Paul Hobcraft's picture

Thank Paul for the Post!

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Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Sep 14, 2020 11:35 am GMT

The spillover potential is definitely exciting, but I also worry about the artificial barriers we put up to it-- capitalistic competition, geopolitical competition, or even just inertia where parties don't realize the work that's been done elsewhere. I wonder what the best solutions are to prevent those challenges. While the digital environment has made crossover more possible than ever, we still unfortunately run into a lot of siloes and gated research.

Paul Hobcraft's picture
Paul Hobcraft on Sep 14, 2020 1:17 pm GMT

Like you Matt, I worry if there will be a collaborative environment. Two thinks encourage me. There are forming different councils such as the battery associations, the Hydrogen Council, Auto associations, Wind, Solar as they have been "forced" to come together to influence regulations and represent their industries. That is positive for a basis for collaboration.

The technologies needed are expensive and risky, one going it alone is not that viable, so alliances are forming between competitors, so another positive.

Artificial barriers are certainly a real concern. Fossil fuel providers will be pushing for interim or intermediate measures to protect their industry, will be a push to replace coal with gas to prolong fossil fuels. These are 15 to 20-year commitments- the risk is stranded assets and the financial backers are moving strongly into renewables, partly seeing this ploy, delay, or positioning.

What we need is more Energy Clearing Houses" that showcase progress so inertia is lessened".

Just take a look at the Hydrogen Council, with 90 global members based on "“On the cusp of a global energy transformation, we need long-term thinking and massive investments in systemic solutions like hydrogen. Hydrogen technologies can provide zero-emission energy and transport solutions, enable deep industrial decarbonisation and help renewables maximise their potential through storage.”

We need more like this, they allow and promote for a potential spillover effect  "The Hydrogen Council is a CEO-led organisation that uses its global reach to promote collaboration between governments, industry and investors, and to provide guidance on accelerating the deployment of hydrogen solutions around the world. The Council acts as a business marketplace, building a comprehensive hydrogen economy and shifting the perception of hydrogen globally. In addition, the Hydrogen Council serves as a resource for safety standards and an interlocutor for the investment community, while identifying opportunities for regulatory advocacy in key geographies."

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Sep 14, 2020 4:24 pm GMT

Thanks for the follow up for reasons for hope in this regard and the overall optimism. The energy transition is the quintessential global problem, but too often we see entities, organizations, and countries trying to tackle it in a segmented way. I'll look forward to your optimism proving me wrong :)

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