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Smaller solutions needed for progress towards UK emissions targets

Low carbon technologies that are smaller in scale, more affordable and more able to be mass deployed than other, larger technologies are more likely to enable a fast transition to net zero emissions, according to a new study by an international team of researchers. 

Innovations ranging from solar panels to electric bikes have lower investment risks, greater potential for improvement in both cost and performance, and more scope for reducing energy demand. 

Researchers from the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research at the University of East Anglia (UEA), the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) in Austria, and the University Institute of Lisbon, collected data on a variety of energy technologies at different scales, and tested how well they performed against nine characteristics of accelerated low carbon transformation, such as cost, innovation and accessibility. 

They then asked: is it better to prioritise large-scale, costly, non-divisible technologies such as nuclear power, carbon capture and storage, and whole-building retrofits? Or is it better to focus on more ‘granular’ options, smaller in size, lower in cost, and more modular – so they scale not by becoming bigger but by replicating? Examples of more granular technologies include solar panels, electricity storage batteries, heat pumps, smart thermostats and electric bikes. 

Publishing their analysis in the journal Science, the team finds that, subject to certain conditions, more granular alternatives out-perform larger scale technologies in a number of important ways. Lead researcher Dr Charlie Wilson, at UEA, said: ‘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. We find that big new infrastructure costing billions is not the best way to accelerate decarbonisation. Governments, firms, investors, and citizens should instead prioritise 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.’ 

As well as being quick to deploy, smaller scale technologies have shorter lifespans and are less complex, so innovations and improvements can be brought to market more rapidly. They are also more widely accessible and help create more jobs, giving governments a sound basis for strengthening climate policies, say the researchers. 

Co-author Prof Arnulf Grubler, at IIASA, said: ‘Large “silver bullet” technologies like nuclear power or carbon capture and storage are politically seductive. But larger scale technologies and infrastructures absorb large shares of available public resources without delivering the rapid decarbonisation we need.’ 

However, the researchers emphasise that smaller scale technologies are not a universal solution. In some situations, there are no like-for-like alternatives to large-scale technologies and infrastructure, such as aircraft flying long haul or industrial plants producing iron, steel, and cement. But in other situations, large numbers of smaller scale technologies need to integrate within existing infrastructure. For example, the widespread deployment of heat pumps and solar panels which need electricity networks; and electric vehicles need charging stations. 

News Item details

Journal title: Energy World

Countries: United Kingdom -

Subjects: Emissions - Metering, monitoring and targeting - Energy transition -

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