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The Future of Basic and Applied Energy Research

by CIFAR May 12 / 17
Despite an appetite for clean energy transition, the attendant challenge is to make these technologies successfully competitive compared to traditional carbon-based energy in the long term. Part and parcel of this challenge is to ensure that basic research in energy harvest, storage and transmission continues to make quantum leaps. Likewise, the pathways from basic research to the commercial market intimately involve incentives and partnerships with academia, government and private enterprises.

What’s Next?

The price of clean energy technology has been dropping rapidly, making it often cheaper than the carbon-based counterparts. Yet, renewables have not gained a significant hold in the global energy market. For renewables such as wind and solar, the base cost of their energy source is free, but a lack of low-cost storage solutions, and little capacity for long-range transmission, reduces the competitiveness of these technologies.


Systems Integration: There is a need to make renewable energy dispatchable over a longer range, and reduce the losses that come from increasing such a range.

Energy Storage: The development of higher capacity storage mechanisms is crucial. There is currently no viable storage option to meet peak energy demands for developed nations.

Innovation and Scale: Greater funding of basic research accelerates the speed of innovation and breakthrough technologies, and likewise, encourages efficiencies of scale.


Systems Integration and Energy Storage

The price of renewable energy, especially wind and solar, has been rapidly dropping (in some cases with the aid of technology breakthroughs, and subsidies — which can stimulate deployment and in turn help reduce costs). However, its wide-scale adoption is prevented mainly by challenges of systems integration, including timely dispatch due to technical or economic reasons. In order to integrate greater shares of renewables into power systems, it will be prudent to improve: (1) operating techniques for the power system; (2) grid infrastructure and the flexibility of power plants; (3) demand response; and, (4) where cost-effective, storage options.

The lack of efficient storage affects the value of renewable sources, especially solar and wind energy. Efficient and feasible storage options are needed to solve the problem of peak demand, for example, the need for energy outside of sunny or windy periods. Expensive storage options make intermittent renewable energy sources less attractive than fossil fuels. It should be noted that energy storage does not consist of one singular challenge, but rather a series of various challenges depending on the type of energy being stored. Thus, improving energy storage technologies using multi-faceted approaches is vital to reducing the costs of renewables and the dependency on carbon-based fuels.

Innovation Quality and Speed

The demand for more innovation in clean energy research and development is accompanied by a need to shorten the length of time for the innovation process, allowing for faster transition to the open market. The current rate of basic research findings is too slow to meet growing energy demands. There are various mechanisms to accelerate this process, including increased funding for basic research, and focused research on specific technologies (e.g. carbon-neutral transportation fuels). In addition, accelerating basic research into energy harvesting techniques found in nature, such as plant photosynthesis and bio-physics, is a prudent path forward. These steps to improve innovation quality and speed require additional public and private funding for clean energy research and development.

Scale-up and Marketability

Another major issue is the lack of economic success of clean energy on the open market, owing to a lack of marketability and large-scale operations. There is an immediate need to widen the scope of renewable energy’s impact beyond the debate on climate change. Clean energy needs to be made economically viable, and increasingly involves questions of economic development, food security, and jobs. Suffice to say, clean energy needs to be marketable and to compete successfully against fossil fuel options on the open market in order to truly facilitate a viable global transition.

In this effort, there is a necessity to increase the speed of research and to get technological innovations out of research labs and onto the market more quickly. In order to scale up and market renewable energy, leading scientists should be more included into the policy-making process surrounding these decisions.

Incentives and Partnerships to Commercialize

Overall, the incentives for researchers to take risks to develop new clean energy technologies is generally lacking. Moreover, the absence of opportunities to commercialize technological discoveries has stalled innovation and the transition to market. Lab to market transition is slow, costly, and never guaranteed, dissuading researchers from pursuing more cutting-edge technologies that may facilitate transition to renewables.

To mitigate these risks, and to create a more conducive environment for innovation, partnerships between researchers, and the public and private sectors are paramount; with researchers taking an active role in clean energy initiatives providing advice. One mechanism in this regard is to create an intermediary de-risking organization between researchers and the market, supported by both government and industry.

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