Established technologies: hiding in plain sight?

Across three years of research into the energy transition, one of our most unexpected findings has been that game-changing, new technologies are less needed than we had originally thought. For example, in our latest roadmap to ‘net zero’ (below), 87% of the heavy-lifting is done by technologies that are already commercial. Our roadmap’s reliance on earlier-stage technologies has fallen by two-thirds since 2019 (chart above).

This has led us to wonder whether decision-makers are possibly over-indexing their attention on game-changing new technologies, at the expense of over-looking pre-existing ones. Hence the purpose of this short note will be to re-cap our ‘top ten’ most overlooked, mature technologies that can cost-effectively help the world reach net zero.

Are mature technologies overlooked in the energy transition?

This note is not meant to downplay the importance of new technologies, improving technologies, or companies having a technical edge. Screening patents has become a major focus of our research (below), as Thunder Said Energy is primarily a research firm focused on energy technologies. So to be clear, amazing new technologies are emerging, definitively interesting, and helping the world towards net zero.

However, established technologies are prone to being overlooked amidst the excitement and novelty. This has been a finding across our recent research, as our latest roadmaps to reaching ‘net zero’ rely much more heavily on established technologies than we had expected.

There are practical implications here for decision makers, because established technologies are lower-risk than new technologies. Indeed one definition of a technology is “something that does not work yet”. This should matter for valuations.

It also matters for the global economy, which will be subjected to some major surgery as the world transitions to net zero. If you were going under the knife yourself, would you prefer a procedure that had been tried-and-tested hundreds of times; or a new procedure, that the surgeons had never actually practiced beforehand?

It also matters for reaching ‘net zero’, where it would be helpful to avoid over-optimism that will ultimately be disappointed as fantasies give way to realities; as the promise of infinite, cheap, clean energy gives way to devastating energy shortages and political bickering. Which is captured in another Old Soviet joke

“When the revolution comes, everything will be glorious. When the revolution comes, we will all live like kings. When the revolution comes, we will all eat strawberries”. “But I don’t like strawberries”. “When the revolution comes, you will like strawberries”.

Our Top Ten Technically-Ready Themes

The list below is intended to capture ten fully mature technologies, that feature in our roadmap to net zero, present interesting opportunities, and may be overlooked.

(1) Renewables mainly need investment. Across our research, it is relatively trivial to ramp renewables to 20-30% of most power grids, near the bottom of the cost curve, and without having to deal with power quality degradation or expensive back-ups. The first electric wind turbine was built in Scotland in 1887 and the first PV silicon was produced at Bell Laboratories in 1954. Today wind and solar comprise 9% of global electricity and 3% of all global energy. But the biggest bottleneck on our roadmap to net zero is not the technology. It is simply trebling capital investment, so conventional wind and solar can abate 11GTpa of CO2e by 2050.

(2) Reforestation abates 13GTpa of CO2 in our updated roadmap to net zero, across 3bn acres of land, 5 tons of CO2 uptake per acre per year, and a c15% reserve buffer for reversals. Photosynthesis is a 3.4 billion year old technology, and the first vascular plants originated over 420M years ago. But since pre-industrial times, 5bn acres of land have been deforested, releasing almost one-third of all anthropogenic CO2. Reforestation is not hard and we are even undertaking our own reforestation projects. Changing dietary choices would also help. None of this strictly requires new technology.

(3) Substituting coal with gas could abate 14GTpa of CO2e by 2050 in our roadmap to net zero, as gas is 60% lower-carbon per MWH. The best gas power plants can achieve 80-90% thermal efficiency when running gas through a combined heat and power unit, note here, using heat-recuperation technology that goes back to 1882. But unfortunately the world is not building enough gas, perpetuating the use of coal and causing us to revise our 2025 CO2 expectations upwards by 2GTpa versus last year. This might be the clearest example where the fantasy of “perfect technology” has de-railed the implementation of “good technology”. Especially if the gas is combined with nature-based CO2 removals, rendering it fully CO2-neutral, then our view is that ultimately, if you build it, they will come.

(4) Insulation. For two years in 2019-20, living in the US, my wife and I rented a house with uninsulated brick walls and single-pane sash windows (I had just started TSE, and budget was a major consideration). No amount of heating would make this property warm in the winter! For this reason, I have retained some skepticism about converting residential heat to run off of green hydrogen or electro-fuels. First, please, add some insulation. Residential heat comprises one-third of Europe’s gas demand. The potential energy savings are enormous, and the theme is now accelerating, also including industrial insulation and heat exchangers.

(5) Digitization. My other personal vendetta from 2021 was with a particular US government agency, as I moved from the United States to Estonia in the summer. It is a legal requirement to update your address in this government database. And the legally mandated process is to cut down a tree, make it into paper, print a PDF form onto that paper, fill it in, and “sign it”; then drive it to a post office, and pay to have the envelope trucked to an airport, then flown half-way around the world on a series of planes, until it reaches a mail processing facility in Middle America. Yes, you could lower the CO2 intensity of all of these transport technologies, via electrification, hydrogen and electro-fuels. Or you could build a web-form, using technology that goes back to the 1990s…

(6) Electric motors. Almost 50% of all global electricity is consumed by 50bn AC induction motors. But most are over-sized. Their power consumption is determined by their nameplate capacity and the frequency of the grid. If you want to run them at lower speeds, you apply a damper or choke (like pedaling a bicycle at constant intensity, and varying your speed by braking harder. While emerging electric vehicle technology is amazing, there are motor drivers in power-electronics, which have been technically ready since the 1980s, and are also stepping-up, especially in renewable-heavy grids.

(7) Wood-based construction materials. All of the world’s land plants pull 440GTpa of CO2 out of the sky each year, which is about 10x more than manmade carbon emissions. However, as part of the carbon cycle, the vast majority of photosynthesis returns to the atmosphere via respiration or decomposition. Small tilts in these large numbers can have a large impact, using sustainable forestry to lock up more wood in structures with multi-decade or multi-century half-lives. Wooden houses go back millennia, but the first Cross Laminated Timber was developed in Austria in the 1990s. Even offcuts and waste can effectively be sequestered from these wood-processing mills. Additional benefits are reducing the risks of forest fires and substituting higher-carbon materials such as steel and cement, which are much harder to decarbonize directly. It is reminiscent of the old cliché that NASA spent millions of dollars developing a pen that would write in space, while the Russians used a pencil.

(8) Carbon capture and storage. The best, long-standing case study of CCS that has crossed our screen is Equinor’s Sleipner project off of Norway, which reliably sequestered 1MTpa of CO2, for twenty years, starting in 1996. Other case studies are reviewed in our database here. In 2020, we were optimistic over novel and next-generation CCS technology, but in 2021 it is plain, vanilla CCS that has trebled in activity, and most caught our attention. Our note below estimates how much potential exists in the US, with can be expanded to 3GTpa of potential for plain, vanilla CCS de-risked globally in our numbers. There is further upside in small-scale CCS, blue hydrogen and even putting CCS stacks on ships, with moderate modifications of otherwise mature technology.

(9) Compressors. Moving more gas molecules rather than coal molecules, moving more CO2 molecules for sequestration, mining materials to build energy transition infrastructure, and possibly even using hydrogen will all require compressors. Which scores as another hidden enabler for energy transition, that is also a mature technology. The first compressor was built by Viktor Popp in Paris in 1888, and the first commercial (mobile) reciprocating compressor was developed by Ingersoll Rand in 1902.

(10) If nuclear fission had been invented in 2021, it would probably be cited as the savior of all humanity, a limitless supply of high-quality baseload power, with no CO2e emissions. But the world’s first full-scale nuclear power station opened at Calder Hall, in the UK, in 1956. Our updated roadmap to net zero has upgraded the growth rate for nuclear from 2% per year, to 2.5% per year, due to gas shortages, potential to backstop renewables, and cost-effective new SMR designs, such as this one.

Finally, and not on our list above is the need for materials to build whatever combination of technologies ultimately delivers the energy transition. Again, these technologies already exist, and are mature, but some require a vast scale-up, and hopefully also some process innovations…

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