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Small low-carbon tech is better for decarbonization than mega projects, study suggests

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Low carbon technologies that are relatively small in scale, more affordable and can be mass deployed are more likely to enable a faster transition to net zero emissions than high cost mega-projects, a new academic study released this week has argued.

The study, published the journal Science, highlights the benefits of prioritizing smaller technologies such as heat pumps, solar panels and electric bikes to drive decarbonization, in comparison to more costly, large-scale solutions such as nuclear power plants and carbon capture and storage (CCS) projects.

While it cautions that smaller scale green technologies are "not a panacea" as they cannot substitute larger alternatives in all circumstances — such as for long haul flights or industrial processes — the study nevertheless found smaller systems carried lower investment risks as well as greater scope for improvements in both cost and performance.

A rapid proliferation of low-carbon innovations distributed throughout our energy system, cities and homes can help drive faster and fairer progress towards climate targets.

Smaller scale technologies such as home battery storage, smart thermostats and shared taxi services are also quicker to deploy, while their usually shorter lifespans make them less complex so innovations and improvements can be brought to market more rapidly, the report concluded.

"A rapid proliferation of low-carbon innovations distributed throughout our energy system, cities and homes can help drive faster and fairer progress towards climate targets," explained the study's lead researcher Charlie Wilson from the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research at the University of East Anglia (UEA).

Moreover, small scale green tech solutions are more widely accessible and help create more jobs, giving governments a strong short term economic rationale for strengthening climate policies, the study contends.

"We find that big new infrastructure costing billions is not the best way to accelerate decarbonization," added Wilson. "Governments, firms, investors and citizens should instead prioritize smaller-scale solutions which deploy faster. This means directing funding, policies, incentives and opportunities for experimentation away from the few big and towards the many small."

Researchers at the UEA's Tyndall Centre, the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) in Austria and the University Institute of Lisbon collected data on a wide variety of energy technologies at different scales. They then tested how well these technologies performed against a range of metrics, such as cost, innovation and accessibility.

The study concluded that, subject to certain conditions, smaller, more granular green technologies outperformed larger scale systems across a number of these key factors, including cost and pace and scale of deployment.

Study co-author, IIASA's Arnulf Grubler, said the research indicated expensive, large scale green solutions such as whole building retrofits, centralised energy plants and high speed transit systems should not be prioritized over smaller scale alternatives.

Larger scale technologies and infrastructures absorb large shares of available public resources without delivering the rapid decarbonization we need.

"Large 'silver bullet' technologies like nuclear power or carbon and capture storage are politically seductive," he argued. "But larger scale technologies and infrastructures absorb large shares of available public resources without delivering the rapid decarbonization we need."

But the researchers emphasized that smaller scale technologies did not offer a universal solution, as there are no like-for-like alternatives in areas such as long haul flight or iron, steel and cement plants.

In some cases, too, smaller scale technologies still need to integrate within existing infrastructure to work effectively and have a broader decarbonization impact. For example, the widespread rollout of heat pumps, solar panels and electric vehicles will continue to rely on electricity networks, which in turn require large scale low carbon generation infrastructure.

"Smaller scale innovations are not a panacea," acknowledged co-author Nuno Bento of the University Institute of Lisbon. "But in many different contexts they outperform larger-scale alternatives as a means of accelerating low-carbon transformation to meet global climate targets."

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