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What’s the progress on clean energy innovation?

A new report has mapped the development of renewable technology innovation in terms of costs, patents and standards, offering valuable insight to policymakers.

Climate Change and Environment
Energy

Innovation in clean energy technologies can speed up the world’s transition to a zero-carbon energy sector. To date, data gathered to help inform innovation policy has mainly focused on inputs into the innovation process. Now, a new report published with support from the EU-funded TEIIF project presents first-time data on the outputs and outcomes from renewable technology innovation, namely, the costs and performance of technologies, patents and standards.

Costs and performance

The report discusses the current status of specific renewable energy technologies. First is the 85 % decline of solar photovoltaic costs between 2010 and 2020 thanks to technology innovation, which has also led to product performance improvements. Improvements in the same time period were also noted in the competitiveness of concentrating solar power (CSP), despite the technology’s limited deployment when compared with other renewables. According to the report, electricity costs for newly commissioned CSP plants dropped by 68 % from 2010 to 2020, as installed costs and operation and maintenance costs fell and capacity factors increased. Policy support has helped to grow the market for behind-the-meter battery storage. However, there is still a lot of potential for growth. Recent years have seen significant investment in versatile lithium-ion (Li-ion) technologies, resulting in improvements in Li-ion batteries that have made them the dominant technology for behind-the-meter residential applications. In the onshore wind sector, higher hub heights and larger swept areas led to “an almost one-third increase in the global weighted-average capacity factor of onshore wind, from just over 27% in 2010 to 36% in 2020.” Onshore wind costs dropped 56 % in the same time period as a result of technology improvements and wind turbine and plant cost reductions. Offshore wind technology improvements in turbines, wind farm layouts and connections – together with reduced downtime in the windiest periods thanks to improved operation and maintenance practices – increased offshore wind capacity factors. Within the last decade, offshore wind costs dropped 48 %. Alkaline (AEL) electrolysers – a key commercial hydrogen electrolyser technology – saw a 60 % drop in cost between 2005 and 2020. AEL system efficiency also improved by at least 10 % in the last decade. Although the cost of another key technology – proton exchange membrane electrolysers – also dropped, it did not improve as much as AEL electrolysers in efficiency. Over the past decade, Europe’s limited support of large-scale solar thermal technologies for industrial processes has nevertheless resulted in over a two-thirds decline in installed costs. This decrease “highlights not only the benefits of policy support, but the importance of also achieving plant-level economies of scale to help drive down costs in the early years of commercial deployment,” the report states.

A look at patents and standards

Data on offshore wind technologies pointed to two peaks in patent activity: one in 2012 and another in 2018 (with 114 and 128 inventions, respectively). Patenting activity related to hydrogen electrolysers grew at an annual rate of 30 %, with 1 600 new inventions made in 2018 alone. The steep increase of new standards related to hydrogen and wind from 2012 onwards shows the growing attention industry is paying to these technologies. TEIIF (TRACKING ENERGY INNOVATION IMPACTS FRAMEWORK) aimed to offer policymakers better knowledge on the impact of innovation funding and support programmes. The project ended in 2021. For more information, please see: TEIIF project

Keywords

TEIIF, renewable energy, renewable technology, technology innovation, offshore wind, onshore wind, hydrogen electrolyser, solar power, battery storage, Li-ion battery

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