Is technological innovation sufficient to achieve a transition to a low-carbon energy system?

On Friday the 7th of November, the SPRU Friday seminar was given by Jim Skea of Imperial College, London. Jim is also Research Councils UK Energy Strategy Fellow, as well as a founding member of the UK Committee on Climate Change, and former research director of UKERC and thus a prominent voice in energy policy. The seminar was titled ‘Energy Innovation – paradigm busting or paradigm reinforcing’, and got to the heart of the policy challenges related to implementing the transition to a low carbon energy system.[i] The panel discussion which followed, featuring Gordon MacKerron, Paul Nightingale, Emily Cox and Phil Johnstone, raised a host of fascinating issues from both the panel and the floor. This discussion centred around a key theme: whether technological innovation is sufficient to achieve a transition to a low-carbon energy system.

The presentation introduced a new research project from Imperial College London, which will examine case studies of energy innovation from around the world. Prof. Skea suggested that there is a dichotomy in energy innovation, between public-sector efforts on the one hand which seek to support new, innovative and low-carbon technologies, and private sector efforts which generally seek to maintain the dominant, fossil-fuel led paradigm. For a bit of background to the project, check out the work carried out by Jim Skea and others for Research Councils UK on energy innovation in the UK;[ii] also check out his paper on the ‘global surge in energy innovation’.[iii]

Much of the discussion around energy innovation frequently centres on technologies; conversations around energy futures are often limited by a fixation on a particular technological option and tend to exclude wider considerations. However, the panel discussion emphasised the fact that this debate around technologies misses some of the most important aspects of what makes an energy system fit for purpose. It is clear that innovation is about people and politics, as much as it is about technological R&D.

Importantly, Jim Skea, pointing to the substantial reserves of hydrocarbons in existence, emphasised that ‘scarcity will not solve the climate crisis’ – in the panel this led on to a discussion outlining the likely reality that powerful vested interests will continue to exploit such resources for years to come if more is not done to directly challenge these actions. If we genuinely believe the severity of the climate problem, then innovation must also take place alongside active discontinuation of certain unsustainable practices. In other words, we have to actively stop doing things rather than waiting for reluctant anonymous market mechanisms to deliver transformation in sufficient time.

Both the floor and the panel emphasised the fact that we need to look beyond technology in questions of innovation. In fact, from an engineering perspective, we have already developed all the kit we require in order to achieve a low-carbon energy system. We are not short of technology – what we are short of is political will and human capital. In order to develop and deploy low-carbon technologies, there needs to be support not just for R&D, but also for large-scale commercial deployment, integration, knowledge-exchange, skills, education and even public behaviour change. And underlying all of this, there needs to be assurances from policy that all this investment will be worth it – something that the UK government isn’t currently achieving. For example, over the past decade or so we’ve spent large amounts of public R&D funding on developing wind energy; however, the onshore wind sector is being severely undermined by a lack of public understanding about the importance of tackling climate change and a lack of effort to improve public acceptance. What’s more, there have been threats from the government recently to introduce a moratorium on onshore wind developments, which has completely wiped out the appetite for private-sector investment in this vital low-carbon technology.

The transition to a low-carbon energy system is not going to be an easy one, and in order to achieve it we clearly need more political appetite for change. This appetite needs to be communicated to the public, with an underlying reminder that the cost of doing nothing about climate change will be greater than the cost of action.[iv] Alongside this, we need to improve our networks of human capital – skills, labour, knowledge exchange, and innovation at community and local scales. The transition to a low-carbon economy will be more than just about which bits of kit to subsidise; it will be about giving the right political messages so that we can maintain both technological and social innovation.

Emily Cox and Phil Johnstone, Sussex Energy Group

[i] Skea, J. (2014) Innovation in the energy sector: paradigm-busting or paradigm-reinforcing? Presentation for SPRU Friday seminar series, 7 November 2014. Available at:


[ii] Research Councils UK (2014) Investing in a brighter energy future: energy research and training prospectus


[iii] Rhodes A, Skea J, Hannon M, 2014, The global surge in energy innovation, Energies, Vol:7, Pages:5601-5623


[iv] Stern, N. (2006) The Stern Review: the economics of climate change. HM Treasury, London

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One comment on “Is technological innovation sufficient to achieve a transition to a low-carbon energy system?
  1. Philip S Harris says:

    Thank you for this summary of discussion.

    I have been following Climate Science since mid-1980s and am aware of the potential outcomes of continued GHG emissions, and the fate looming over inter alia our industrial civilisation, especially the recent expanded global version.

    However, I have increasingly become aware of a disconnect between mainstream economic assumptions of ‘growth’ and the realities of constraints on ‘affordable’ sources of energy. It is a commonplace to talk of large remaining resources of fossil carbon as if their mobilisation can be assumed. I draw your attention to work by the Uppsala group among others, especially for example a review of coal resources by Michael Hook

    In general, I quote an insight from N Hagens: we have built a civilisation on affordable fossil fuels, for the sake of illustration requiring “5%” of economic activity. If the real costs of obtaining and putting to work the fuel energy ‘substrate’ rises to 10% of ‘our’ economic activity, then only very roughly 50% of ‘our’ aggregate ‘superstructure’ can thereafter be maintained.

    By no means do these increasingly demonstrable constraints to ‘growth’ solve the climate change predicament. However, such constraints severely undermine any concept of transition, that is substitution of non-carbon sources of energy for the presently vast use of fossil fuels. De-carbonising electricity supply is only one of the larger set of hurdles we face. I favour investment in wind power in UK but am under no illusions that this will be anything like adequate to underpin our economy. I don’t actually see anyway the same level of energy can possibly be provided in any modern economy with high per capita usage.

    Phil H

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